U.S., South Korea set delayed military drills; North Korea urges end to pressure

(Reuters) - The United States and South Korea will begin small-scale military drills on Monday that were delayed during talks with North Korea, days after Pyongyang threatened to restart work on its nuclear programme if international pressure does not ease.
FILE PHOTO: A man stands near binoculars as he tries to see North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong at the Dora observatory near the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
The Korean Marine Exchange Programme was among the training drills that were indefinitely suspended in June after U.S. President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore and promised to end joint, U.S.-South Korea military exercises often criticised by the North.
A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of Defence confirmed a round of training would begin near the southern city of Pohang, with no media access expected.
About 500 American and South Korean marines will participate in the manoeuvres, the Yonhap news agency reported.
In Washington last week, South Korea’s defence minister said Washington and Seoul would make a decision by December on major joint military exercises for 2019. Vigilant Ace, suspended earlier this month, is one of several such exercises that have been halted to encourage dialogue with Pyongyang.
The biggest combat-readiness war game ever staged in and around Japan has gone ahead, however, with nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan joining Japanese destroyers and a Canadian warship in the ocean off Japan — another key player in the effort to pressure North Korea.
North Korea warned on Friday that it could restart development of its nuclear programme if the United States does not drop its campaign of “maximum pressure” and sanctions.
“The improvement of relations and sanctions are incompatible,” a foreign ministry official said in a statement released through state-run KCNA news agency. “The U.S. thinks that its oft-repeated ‘sanctions and pressure’ lead to ‘denuclearization.’ We cannot help laughing at such a foolish idea.”
North Korea has not tested a ballistic missile or nuclear weapon for nearly a year, and has said it has shuttered its main nuclear test site with plans to dismantle several more facilities.
In recent weeks, North Korea has pressed more sharply for what it sees as reciprocal concessions by the United States and other countries.
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“As shown, the U.S. is totally to blame for all the problems on the Korean peninsula including the nuclear issue and therefore, the very one that caused all those must untie the knot it made,” Friday’s statement said.
American officials have remained sceptical of Kim’s commitment to give up the nuclear arsenal he has already amassed, however, and Washington says it won’t support easing international sanctions until more verified progress is made.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, has forged ahead with efforts to engage with North Korea in recent months, raising U.S. concerns that Seoul could weaken pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.