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South Korea has asked the US to delay joint military exercises until after the Winter Olympics, in order to lower the chances that North Korea takes provocative actions during the Pyeongchang Games, which Seoul wants to use to showcase the country’s development.
Four people familiar with the situation said Seoul wanted to postpone the start of the annual spring exercises — called Key Resolve/Foal Eagle — until after the Paralympics, which end on March 18. Two of those people said the US was likely to accept the request.
The move comes as tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen to the point where Seoul and Tokyo are concerned that the Pentagon may be preparing for a strike on North Korea in an effort to convince Kim Jong Un to abandon his weapons programmes.
HR McMaster, US national security adviser, this month said the potential for war with North Korea was “increasingly every day”. Pyongyang last month tested the Hwasong 15, a long-range missile capable of hitting the east cost of the US — a move that came two months after it conducted its sixth, and most powerful, nuclear test.
Sue Mi Terry, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was understandable that Seoul would want a delay since it was “very worried” about the Olympics. She said a postponement might also help create the conditions for talks, since it would reduce the chance of North Korea taking the kind of provocative actions that have, so far, closed off the possibility of serious negotiations with Washington.
Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, said the move was prudent given the nature of the Kim regime. “Its neighbours are fearful that defensive exercises or a sports event would be used as an excuse for a provocation or deadly attack,” said Mr Klingner.
“The fear is not unfounded since Pyongyang destroyed a civilian airliner in 1987 in an attempt to derail the 1988 Seoul Olympics.”
North Korea routinely lambasts the US and South Korea over their joint exercises. In addition to concerns about provocations during the games, Seoul is worried that the current tensions on the peninsula will cool demand for the Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics, particularly since ticket sales have been weak.
South Korea made the request before President Moon Jae-in’s visit to China this week. One reason for the low ticket sales is that China has banned tour groups from visiting South Korea since March, because of a dispute over an American missile defence system that Seoul allowed the US to install in the country earlier this year.
One of the people familiar with the South Korean request said it was probably partly an effort to gain goodwill with China, in the hopes that Beijing would relax the travel restrictions. He added that China was looking for ways to restart de-nuclearisation talks, and that Beijing viewed some recent US actions, such as putting North Korea back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, as an obstacle to those efforts.
“A delay in the exercise would be a prudent move to decrease tensions . . . as athletes and guests from around the global come to a South Korean city only 50 miles from the demilitarised zone,” said the person, who added that the need for major exercises was reduced because US and South Korean troops had done extensive training this year.
Don Manzullo, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said that as long as the decision to delay the exercises was acceptable to US forces in Korea, there was “no reason why the exercises should not take place after the Olympics”.
But Evan Medeiros of Eurasia Group said delaying the exercises was a “very risky” move. “On the one hand, you want to work with your South Korean ally but, on the other hand, this dangerously validates North Korea’s claim that the exercises are a source of tension,” said Mr Medeiros, who was Barack Obama’s top Asia adviser. “The next step could be to shrink the exercises or cancel them all together.”
China has proposed a “freeze-for-freeze” arrangement where the US and South Korea would halt their joint military exercises in exchange for North Korea agreeing to stop missile and nuclear tests. Washington has rejected that idea on the grounds that it would just give North Korea more time to keep developing its weapons programmes.
The South Korean request comes as Joe Yun, the state department envoy for North Korea, is visiting Japan and Thailand for talks over the crisis on the Korean peninsula. General Vincent Brooks, the top US commander in South Korea, travelled to Washington last week to provide Congress with a classified briefing on North Korea.
The Pentagon and National Security Council declined to comment on the South Korean request. The South Korean embassy did not respond to a request for comment.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi