US-South Korea relations showing signs of strain

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South Korea will “determine its stance” on upcoming joint military exercises with the United States to avoid a “serious problem” with North Korea, Unification Minister Lee In-young said Wednesday.

 

The government’s review will consider issues that include the coronvirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) and the Biden administration’s policy toward North Korea, and will be “in line with denuclearization and a permanent peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula,” Lee said at a briefing with international journalists in downtown Seoul.

 

“I sincerely hope the two Koreas will cope wisely and flexibly in dealing with this situation so that the issue of joint military exercises does not escalate to a serious problem on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

Pyongyang has consistently condemned the joint exercises, characterizing them as hostile and a rehearsal for an invasion. In January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for the end of the drills at a party congress, saying they violated a military agreement signed by the two Koreas in 2018.

North Korea has used the military exercises in the past as a pretext for conducting weapons tests of its own, and observers are wondering whether Pyongyang is planning any provocations to welcome in the new administration of US President Joe Biden.

Last week, the Pentagon said that it remained committed to joint training exercises with South Korean forces so to maintain a “readiness posture” against threats from the North.

Lee also defended controversial legislation that bans the sending of anti-North Korea leaflets across the border by defectors and activists – another hot-button issue with the North.

Critics in South Korea and abroad have charged that the impending law, set to take effect March 30, limits freedom of speech and hinders the flow of information to citizens in the reclusive country.

“I want to make it clear that the purpose of the amendment was to protect the life and safety of the 1.12 million living along the border area [with the North],” Lee said.

 

CRITICISMS VS SOUTH KOREA

US Rep. Chris Smith has said he intends to convene a hearing in Congress “to examine the South Korean government’s failure to uphold civil and political rights.”

Lee said Wednesday that Seoul and Washington have had “close communications in order to relieve some of the misunderstandings that the two governments have” over the law.

The minister addressed local media reports alleging that the administration of President Moon Jae-in had plans to help North Korea build a nuclear power plant, calling the claims “a baseless argument.”

“The Ministry of Unification is in charge of inter-Korean cooperation and we’ve never had discussions with North Korea about building a nuclear power plant,” Lee said.

He said the situation on the Korean Peninsula is at an “inflection point,” with Seoul looking to restart the peace process through close coordination with Washington.

“We understand that the Biden administration is seriously and carefully reviewing their North Korea policy, including previous policies [such as] sanctions and diplomatic approaches,” Lee said.

The two countries “will be able to engage in consultation with the North based on a mutual understanding of the importance of issues on the Korean Peninsula” he added.

Seoul is also aiming to directly improve inter-Korean relations through humanitarian cooperation, including assistance in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, Lee said.

In November, Lee offered to provide Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to North Korea, a gesture echoed last week by Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun.

Relations with Pyongyang have been frozen since North Korea cut off all communication with the South last spring, but Lee said that Seoul is looking to rekindle dialogue on an accelerated timetable.

“The South Korean government wants to resume dialogue in the first half of the year so that we might be able to put the peace process back on track in the second half of the year,” he said.

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