SEOUL • About 500 American and South Korean marines began small-scale military drills yesterday, just days before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to hold talks with North Korea on denuclearisation and plans for a second summit of their leaders.
The Korean Marine Exchange Programme was among the training drills indefinitely suspended in June after US President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore and promised to end his country's military exercises with South Korea.
Although larger exercises were suspended, the two countries have continued small-scale drills, the South's Ministry of National Defence said yesterday, adding that the marines were holding a training round near the southern city of Pohang.
Mr Pompeo, interviewed on broadcaster CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday, said he would be in New York City at the end of this week to meet his North Korean counterpart, Mr Kim Yong Chol.
"I expect we'll make some real progress, including an effort to make sure that the summit between our two leaders can take place, where we can make substantial steps towards denuclearisation," he added.
In Washington last week, South Korea's Defence Minister said the two countries would decide by December on major joint military exercises for the next year.
Vigilant Ace, suspended this month, is one of several such exercises halted to encourage dialogue with Pyongyang, which has criticised US-South Korea exercises in the past.
However, the biggest combat-readiness war game ever staged in and around Japan has gone ahead, with nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan joining Japanese destroyers and a Canadian warship in the ocean off Japan, another key player in the effort to pressure North Korea.
This week's exercises follow a warning by North Korea last Friday that it could resume development of its nuclear programme if the US did not drop its campaign of "maximum pressure" and sanctions.
"The improvement of relations and sanctions are incompatible," a Foreign Ministry official said in a statement released through state-run KCNA news agency. "The US thinks that its oft-repeated 'sanctions and pressure' lead to 'denuclearisation'. We cannot help laughing at such a foolish idea."
South Korea hopes the North and the United States will make "big progress" during the talks set for this week, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said yesterday, but declined to comment on the North's Friday statement.
Pyongyang has not tested a ballistic missile or nuclear weapon for nearly a year, and has said it has shuttered its main nuclear test site with plans to dismantle several more facilities.
In recent weeks, North Korea has pressed harder for what it sees as reciprocal concessions by the US and other countries.
"As shown, the US is totally to blame for all the problems on the Korean Peninsula, including the nuclear issue, and therefore, the very one that caused all those must untie the knot it made," it said last Friday.
American officials have remained sceptical of Mr Kim's commitment to give up his nuclear arsenal, however, and Washington has said it will not support easing international sanctions until more verified progress is made.
Mr Pompeo, interviewed on Fox News Sunday, said that the US administration wants a full, verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, adding that Mr Trump has insisted on "no economic relief until we have achieved our ultimate objective".
South Korean President Moon Jae-in's continuing efforts to engage with North Korea have fanned US concerns that Seoul could weaken pressure on North Korea to give up nuclear weapons.