The US defence secretary has said the Pentagon was willing to alter military exercises on the Korean peninsula to help convince North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons.
Mark Esper said the US would “adjust our exercise posture either more or less depending on what diplomacy may require”, in remarks made ahead of his arrival in South Korea.
“We have to open to all those things and empower and enable our diplomats to sit down with the North Koreans . . . and move the ball forward to a negotiated settlement,” Mr Esper said. The defence secretary made the comments as he flew to Seoul, where he and General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, will hold meetings about the US-South Korea alliance.
North Korea has long railed at the joint military exercises the US and South Korea conduct to prepare for any conflict on the peninsula. Donald Trump, US president, cancelled some exercises — without informing his military team — in June 2018 just hours after concluding his first summit with Mr Kim in Singapore.
The US and North Korea have engaged in on-off negotiations since the Singapore summit but have made little progress towards denuclearisation. Mr Trump and Mr Kim held a second summit in Hanoi in February and met for a third time in the demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas in June.
Stephen Biegun, the top US negotiator, met his North Korean counterparts in Sweden last month, following a pledge from Mr Kim in June that Pyongyang would return to the negotiating table for the first time since Hanoi.
But there has been little progress. Pyongyang has also ramped up its critical rhetoric, restarted tests of short and medium-range missiles, and hinted that it could take a much more aggressive stance next year.
In April, Mr Kim said he would be “patient” until the end of 2019, a statement widely interpreted as setting a time limit for a diplomatic breakthrough. In recent weeks, state-run media have cited cadres echoing that call, which experts saw as a warning of a possible resumption of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
Earlier this week, Gen Milley said it was unclear if the North Korean rhetoric meant the country was preparing to adopt a more aggressive stance. “I don’t know that it’s as clear as it could be for me to make a prediction. I think it’s ambiguous right now,” he told the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal.
The US and South Korea have scaled back exercises and in some instances run simulations rather than big drills. But they have not completely suspended joint exercises.
Mr Trump has insisted that his approach has reduced tensions from earlier in his administration when he and Mr Kim hurled aggressive insults at each other. Mr Esper, who served as secretary of the army before becoming defence secretary, said the US had been heading to war with North Korea in late 2017.
“We were on the path to war. It was very clear to me because the army was making preparations,” he said.