by Helene Cooper and Choe Sang Hun
WASHINGTON — The United States and South Korea will resume their annual joint military exercises April 1, the Pentagon announced Monday, restarting drills that have aroused the ire of North Korea and were suspended during the Olympics and Paralympics.
Washington and Seoul had agreed to delay the drills after South and North Korea announced they were beginning a diplomatic rapprochement, with the North sending a delegation to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The exercises, code-named Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, will involve some 23,000 US troops and more than 300,000 South Korean troops. The scale this year is similar to that of previous years, Defense Department officials said.
South Korean officials have told reporters that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, who is expected to meet with President Donald Trump by May about the North’s nuclear program, has appeared unexpectedly flexible about the exercises this year. During previous drills, Kim has conducted multiple missile tests.
But during talks with the South last month, Kim said that “he could understand why the joint exercises must resume in April on the same scale as before,” Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, said this month.
Choi Hyun-soo, a spokeswoman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, said the North Korean military was notified Tuesday of the schedule and “defensive nature” of the drills. Such notices are delivered through Panmunjom, a contact point established on the North-South border when the Korean War was halted in a truce in 1953.
The drills are always high profile, largely because the United States and South Korea seek to use them as a statement of unity and purpose in the defense of South Korea against the North. Because of that, the exercises always seem to anger North Korea.
“Our combined exercises are defense-oriented and there is no reason for North Korea to view them as provocation,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman. “These routine training exercises are not conducted in response to any DPRK provocations or the current political situation on the peninsula,” he added, using the abbreviation for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
This year, the exercises are bound to be even more delicate, as the Trump administration rushes to prepare for first-of-their-kind talks between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader.
White House officials are scrambling to figure out how Trump will handle the negotiations, which will pose a stiff challenge to an administration that has built its North Korea policy around imposing crippling sanctions, backed by the threat of military action. Before the announcement of talks this month, there had been little planning for how a negotiation between Washington and Pyongyang would unfold.
The South Korean and US militaries usually hold the exercises from late February through April.
The Key Resolve exercise is largely a computer-simulated war game, while Foal Eagle has typically involved large-scale ground, air, naval and special operations field exercises, including amphibious-landing drills.
The allied militaries did not immediately reveal when the exercises would end or whether any US aircraft carriers would participate, as they have in the past.
The South Korean news media has speculated that this year’s drills will be shortened, ending before Kim and President Moon Jae-in are scheduled to hold their own summit meeting in late April.
At the height of the tensions between North Korea and the United States last year, the United States frequently dispatched strategic bombers on training missions over the peninsula, along with what Trump called an “armada” of aircraft carriers and other warships to surrounding waters, as part of Washington’s “maximum” pressure campaign.
The announcement about the exercises came as a senior North Korean official started unofficial talks with a delegation of former US and South Korean officials in Finland. North Korean officials have held such informal talks periodically with former officials and scholars.
Washington said that the US participants, including Kathleen Stephens, the former ambassador to South Korea, were not representing the US government. But this year’s meeting drew unusual attention because of its timing before the anticipated meeting between Trump and Kim.