U.S., South Korea Said to Mull Drills Halt During Olympics

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and South Korea are considering delaying joint military drills until after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February in a bid to reduce tensions with North Korea, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

While no final decision has been made, the annual Spring military exercises known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle could be deferred until mid-March, said the person, who asked not to be identified as the discussions are private. South Korea’s foreign ministry said it was not a matter that officials would comment on. The Financial Times earlier reported the drills may be postponed.

The South Korea-U.S. alliance “continues to discuss the way ahead on the exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, to include the appropriate timing,” Commander David Benham, public affairs officer at U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, said in an email. “The alliance will issue a statement at the appropriate time."

Pyongyang regularly describes the drills as a prelude to invasion and says they justify its nuclear and missile-testing program. In response to a five-day joint air exercise on the peninsula involving 230 aircraft and 12,000 American troops earlier this month, North Korea threatened to take the “highest-level hard-line countermeasure in history.”

The Winter Olympics will run Feb. 9-25, with the Paralympics taking place March 9-18. The last Foal Eagle exercise, which consisted of ground, air, naval and special operations field drills, started in early March and ran through April, overlapping with the Key Resolve exercises that focus on computer simulations.

Postponing the drills could help create conditions for talks between the U.S. and North Korea. China has called on the U.S. to halt exercises and start talks with Pyongyang, part of its “suspension-for-suspension” proposal that would also require Kim to freeze nuclear and missile tests. Still, the U.S. has repeatedly rejected the proposal, arguing that its drills are defensive in nature.

President Donald Trump has also frequently threatened military force against Pyongyang. Suspending the drills could be seen by North Korea as a concession to Kim Jong Un at a time Trump is seeking to project strength.

Still, "with no formal dialogue channels ongoing, it’s hard to get the other side to make a promise," said Choi Young Jin, a former South Korean ambassador to the U.S. A delay in the drills "could be quite a good diplomatic accomplishment as the two sides could tap each other’s intentions and wills" for future talks, he said.

North Korea shattered a two-month period of relative quiet on Nov. 29 with the firing of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile. Pyongyang claimed the missile could deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the U.S, and said it had completed its nuclear force.

In October South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged North Korea to take part in the games, saying the participation of athletes from across the border could help open a path to peace. Moon has also said he would enlist Chinese President Xi Jinping to convince North Korea to participate. The president begins a four-day visit to China on Wednesday.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.