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U.S. experts divided over possible delay of S. Korea military drills

2018/01/01 07:00

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (Yonhap) -- With the PyeongChang Winter Olympics a month away, U.S. experts are divided over whether the two countries should postpone their annual military exercises to lower tensions with North Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said this month that the allies could review the timing of the drills, which are likely to coincide with the Winter Games Feb. 9-25 and the Paralympics March 9-19.

North Korean condemns them as an invasion rehearsal, and the South Korean government is keen to avoid provoking the communist regime at a time when the world will be gathered in PyeongChang, an alpine town some 80 kilometers south of the inter-Korean border.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, said delaying the exercises until after the games could have its benefits.

"I think President Moon has a good point," he said in a recent written interview. "We have been doing an unusual amount of exercising, including live fire exercises and B-2 bomber flights. It would be a gesture of good faith and give the U.S. and (South Korea) the moral high ground."

   Tensions with North Korea reached new heights this year as it staged a series of weapons tests, including a sixth nuclear detonation and three intercontinental ballistic missile launches.

"Declaring a pause for exercising and testing around the Olympic games and asking Pyongyang to do the same makes sense," Manning said, expressing confidence that Washington and Seoul would still be able to respond to any North Korean provocation.

He also voiced support for Seoul's call on Pyongyang to send its athletes to the Olympics.

"It might make him more reluctant to do anything provocative," he said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

However, Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher at the Santa Monica, California-based RAND Corp., argued a delay would be risky.

"It is important to remember why the U.S. and South Korea do major military exercises in March," he said. "Each year, North Korea carries out its winter training exercises usually starting in December and concluding in March. That means that North Korea is most prepared to invade South Korea in March of each year."

   The allied drills are designed to enhance readiness in the event of a North Korean invasion, he added, and postponing them until April would create a "window of vulnerability."

   "Should the U.S. and South Korea accept this risk, and what do they have to gain for doing so?" he questioned. "President Moon seems anxious to give North Korea no excuse for provocation during the Olympics that might sabotage the success of the Olympics. Is this restraint worth the risk? I am a bit skeptical."

   But in the event that both North Korea and the two allies hold up their end of the deal, there could emerge diplomatic space for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, according to Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"I doubt this request to postpone joint military exercises until the end of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in PyeongChang will cause a great strain between the U.S. and South Korea," she said. "The U.S. understands that holding a successful and safe Olympics is a top priority for the South Korean government right now."

   hague@yna.co.kr

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