Pentagon plays down US-South Korea drills after North suspends talks

A US F-22 Raptor fighter jet takes off from an air base in Gwangju, 329 kilometers south of Seoul, South Korea, on May 2, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Pentagon on Tuesday (May 15) played down ongoing military exercises with South Korea, saying they were routine and defensive in nature after North Korea blamed them for its decision to suspend high-level talks with Seoul scheduled for Wednesday.

"Republic of Korea (ROK) and US military forces are currently engaged in the recurring, annual ROK-US spring exercises, to include exercises Foal Eagle 2018 and Max Thunder 2018," a Pentagon spokesman said, adding that the Max Thunder air combat drills were scheduled to run from May 14-25.

"These defensive exercises are part of the ROK-US Alliance's routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness."

North Korea threw into question an unprecedented summit between its leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump scheduled for next month, denouncing military exercises between South
Korea and the United States as a provocation and calling off high-level talks with Seoul.

A report on North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency angrily attacked the "Max Thunder" air combat drills, which it said involved US stealth fighters and B-52 bombers, and appeared to mark a break in months of warming ties between North and South Korea and between Pyongyang and Washington.

Any cancellation of the June 12 summit in Singapore, the first meeting between a serving US president and a North Korean leader, would deal a major blow to Trump's efforts to score the biggest diplomatic achievement of his presidency.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington had no information from North Korea about the threat to cancel the summit and continued to plan for that meeting.

"Kim Jong Un had said previously that he understands the need and the utility of the United States and the Republic of Korea continuing in its joint exercises," she told a briefing.

"We have not heard anything from that government or the government of South Korea to indicate that we would not continue conducting these exercises or that we would not continue planning for our meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un next month," she said.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the United States would examine the North Korean statement "and continue to coordinate closely with our allies."

South Korea's National Security Office head Chung Eui Yyong said in early March, after meeting Kim, that the North Korean leader understood that "routine" joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States would continue in spite of a warming of ties.

This was widely considered to be a major North Korea concession, though Pyongyang never publicly withdrew its long-standing demand for an end to the drills.

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