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(LEAD) Defense chief's 'joke' adds to speculation about scaled-down drills

All Headlines 17:22 March 08, 2018

(ATTN: UPDATES with commander's response in paras 7-8, background in paras 17-21; ADDS photo)
By Lee Chidong

SEOUL, March 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo "jokingly" said Thursday the United States does not need to send a nuclear submarine and other strategic assets to Korea for the upcoming joint military drills.

He made the remark during a meeting with visiting Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift amid speculation that Seoul hopes to scale down this year's Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises in order to maintain the mood of inter-Korean reconciliation spurred by the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

"Lots of changes are expected in South-North relations and (security conditions) surrounding the Korean Peninsula going forward," the minister told the admiral, who is retiring in a few months.

In particular, Song added, the two Koreas plan to hold their third summit talks in late April with South Korea and the U.S. scheduled to stage the annual exercises.

South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo (R) shakes hands with U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift in Seoul on March 8, 2018. (Yonhap)

He asked Swift to keep doing his best for a firm defense posture through his retirement, reportedly slated for May.

"You need not deploy (defense assets) like nuclear submarines during the remainder of your tenure as commander," the minister said with a slight smile in front of TV cameras.

Swift briefly replied that his troops will stay ready for deployment in case of an order from national leaders.

Ministry officials later played down Song's remark as a joke.

However, Song's comments rekindled concerns among conservatives here about the possibility of a reduction in the size of the allies' annual military training.

They plan to kick it off not long after the end of the Paralympics on March 18, although no exact schedule has been announced yet.

Meeting with President Moon Jae-in's special envoys in Pyongyang earlier this week, the North's leader Kim Jong-un was quoted as saying he doesn't take issue with the timing of the exercise itself.

Kim agreed to sit down with Moon at the truce village of Panmunjom late next month and promised to move toward denuclearization if his regime's security is guaranteed.

It represents a significant breakthrough in efforts to improve inter-Korean ties and broker dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington.

Still, many voiced doubts about the intentions behind the North's sudden peace offensive.

They pointed out that Kim's key aim is to sap the alliance and international sanctions on Pyongyang.

Critics accused the defense minister of making thoughtless remarks in public on the alliance at a sensitive time.

His aides argued that it was a joke or well-wishing message for the outgoing commander who made tireless efforts to send strategic assets to Korea in the face of North Korea's back-to-back missile launches and nuclear tests in recent years.

In January, a Virginia-class U.S. nuclear sub wanted to make a port call in Busan for supplies but sailed instead to Japan as South Korea's government proposed a Jinhae port as an alternative, according to news reports.

At that time, the Moon administration was striving to ease military tensions on the peninsula ahead of the Winter Olympics.

Such a defense asset in Busan is more conspicuous to the public than it would be in Jinhae, informed sources said.

Speaking to Yonhap News Agency in an interview last year, the admiral said dispatching a strategic asset to Korea is a system-based matter that requires timely action and close coordination between the allies.

South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo (R) talks with U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift in Seoul on March 8, 2018. (Yonhap)

In a press release, meanwhile, the ministry said Song and Swift discussed ways to achieve the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Song briefed the commander on the results of the presidential envoys' trip to the North.

He stressed the importance of close coordination between the allies for maintaining the momentum of inter-Korean dialogue created on the occasion of the Olympics.

He also expressed his gratitude to Swift for his contribution to the security of South Korea and naval partnerships between the two nations since taking office in May 2015.

lcd@yna.co.kr
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