November 4, 2018 / 12:51 PM / in 15 days

U.S., South Korea resume low-key military drills ahead of talks with North Korea

SEOUL (Reuters) - The United States and South Korea will begin small-scale military drills on Monday just days ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with a North Korea official to discuss denuclearization and plans for a second summit between the two countries.

FILE PHOTO: South Korean marines march during a military exercise as a part of the annual joint military training called Foal Eagle between South Korea and the U.S. in Pohang, South Korea, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

The Korean Marine Exchange Program was among the training drills that were indefinitely suspended in June after U.S. President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore and promised to end joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises often criticized by the North.

A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of Defense confirmed a round of training would begin near the southern city of Pohang, with no media access expected.

About 500 American and South Korean marines will participate in the maneuvers, the Yonhap news agency reported.

Meanwhile, Pompeo, interviewed on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said he would be in New York City at the end of this week to meet with his North Korean counterpart, 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 denuclearization,” Pompeo said.

In Washington last week, South Korea’s defense minister said Washington and Seoul would make a decision by December on major joint military exercises for 2019. Vigilant Ace, suspended earlier this month, is one of several such exercises that have been halted to encourage dialogue with Pyongyang.

The biggest combat-readiness war game ever staged in and around Japan has gone ahead, however, 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.

North Korea warned on Friday that it could restart development of its nuclear program if the United States does 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 U.S. thinks that its oft-repeated ‘sanctions and pressure’ lead to ‘denuclearization.’ We cannot help laughing at such a foolish idea.”

North Korea 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 more sharply for what it sees as reciprocal concessions by the United States and other countries.

“As shown, the U.S. 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,” Friday’s statement said.

American officials have remained skeptical of Kim’s commitment to give up the nuclear arsenal he has already amassed, however, and Washington says it won’t support easing international sanctions until more verified progress is made.

Pompeo, interviewed on television’s “Fox News Sunday,” said the Trump administration wants a full, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He added that Trump insists on “no economic relief until we have achieved our ultimate objective.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, has forged ahead with efforts to engage with North Korea in recent months, raising U.S. concerns that Seoul could weaken pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Reporting by Josh Smith and Joyce Lee; additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington; Editing by Catherine Evans and Lisa Shumaker

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