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(3rd LD) FM nominee cautious on large-scale S. Korea-U.S. exercises, notes need for 'proper level' of drills

All News 20:45 February 05, 2021

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead; ADDS more info in paras 12-15)

SEOUL, Feb. 5 (Yonhap) -- Foreign Minister nominee Chung Eui-yong struck a cautious note Friday about staging large-scale military exercises between South Korea and the United States, noting the need for the allied drills to take place at a "proper level."

During a parliamentary confirmation hearing, Chung stressed "various implications" of large exercises between the allies, amid concern that such military maneuvers could provoke North Korea and derail efforts to resume stalled dialogue with it.

Seoul and Washington are currently discussing how to hold a combined command post exercise this spring, the defense ministry has said. Pyongyang has routinely slammed allied drills as a rehearsal for war against it.

"To maintain a defense posture, a proper level of combined exercises should continue," Chung, a former top security adviser to President Moon Jae-in, said.

"But as large-scale combined exercises have various implications for the Korean Peninsula situation, (South Korea) is very closely communicating with the U.S. side," he said.

Foreign Minister nominee Chung Eui-yong speaks during a confirmation hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul on Feb. 5, 2021. (Yonhap)

In response to a question about whether it is inevitable to scale down the springtime combined exercise due to the pandemic, Chung said, "Yes."

"Taking that (pandemic) situation into account as well, the military authorities of South Korea and the U.S. are closely consulting over how to stage the exercise," he said.

The issue of combined military exercises highlighted a policy dilemma for Seoul, which has sought to use the drills to expedite the process to retake wartime operational control from Washington while avoiding inflaming cross-border tension.

Touching on an ongoing North Korea policy review by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, Chung expected that it might not take much time.

"The U.S. has said that during the review process, it would first look into the South Korean government's views and consult (with Seoul), and I regard this as a positive signal," he said.

Chung went on to say that using its communication channels, the South has been continuing to urge the North to return to dialogue at an early date.

Regarding a denuclearization approach to be employed when talks between Washington and Pyongyang resume, the nominee, credited with guiding Moon's engagement policy toward the North, expressed his support for a phased formula.

"What is the most realistic approach is a step-by-step one entailing one or two interim stages on the path toward the end goal, after agreeing on the final stage or final picture of denuclearization," Chung said.

"I will consult over that with the U.S.," he added.

Touching on the role for the South to play when the North returns to dialogue with the U.S., Chung pointed out the need for the two negotiating partners to build a "new relationship of trust."

In his opening remarks, Chung pledged to seek substantive progress in stalled denuclearization efforts through an early resumption of dialogue with the North under a "coordinated" strategy with the U.S.

His remarks came a day after Moon and Biden spoke by phone for the first time since the latter's inauguration on Jan. 20 and agreed to craft a joint "comprehensive strategy" for handling the North Korea issue.

Highlighting the importance of the partnership with Washington, Chung stressed the bilateral alliance as a foundation for South Korea's diplomacy and security and pledged to develop it into a "more sound, mutually beneficial and comprehensive" alliance.

"I will seek to build trust and policy consensus with the Biden administration by pushing for early summit and high-level exchanges, pursue reasonable solutions to pending alliance issues, strengthen global partnerships on public health, security and climate change and thus further solidify the alliance and broaden its horizons for cooperation," he said.

The nominee also said he would push for Pyongyang's participation in a Seoul-led initiative for regional cooperation in battling pandemics and other public health crises.

On Japan, Chung cast the country as a "close neighbor and partner for cooperation in promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia" amid a protracted row between Seoul and Tokyo over wartime history and trade.


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