Any delay in joint military drills with the United States would depend on North Korea’s behavior during the 2018 Winter Olympics, officials in Seoul said on Wednesday, while a halt to group tours from China suggested Beijing is still wary.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is seeking to soothe relations with China and the North before the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February and suggested on Tuesday he was prepared to postpone the drills with the United States, according to a Reuters report.
Pyongyang sees the joint exercises as preparation for war, while Beijing is still angry about the deployment of a US anti-missile system, commonly known as THAAD, by South Korea.
China believes the system’s powerful radar can see far into its territory, but Seoul argues it needs it to guard against the threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes.
Seoul has proposed the potential delay in drills to Washington, which was also discussed during a summit last week between Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping, an official from the presidential Blue House in Seoul said on Wednesday.
China has in the past proposed a “freeze for freeze” arrangement under which North Korea would stop its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a halt to the exercises. However, Washington has rejected the idea and Pyongyang has shown little interest in negotiations.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Ottawa on Tuesday he was unaware of any plans to “alter longstanding and scheduled and regular military exercises”.
North Korea has stepped up its missile and nuclear tests to an unprecedented rate this year, and any new provocation from the North would “inevitably have an impact” on the exercises, the Blue House official said.
“It is a display of the president’s strong message that North Korea must not conduct any provocation (during the Olympics),” the official told reporters.