By Hyonhee Shin and Idrees Ali
SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and South Korea will resume joint military drills next month, Seoul and Washington said on Tuesday, exercises that will go ahead despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Seoul and Washington said in January they would delay the annual exercises until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics held in South Korea last month, helping to create conditions for a resumption of talks between South and North Korea.
The reclusive North routinely denounces the drills as preparation for war.
The Foal Eagle field exercise is scheduled to begin on April 1 and go on for a month, while the computer-simulated Key Resolve will be held for two weeks starting in mid-April, a South Korean military official told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday.
There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity across Asia, the United States and Europe since the North sent delegations to the Winter Olympics, moves that culminated in North Korea’s planned summits with the South and with the United States.
The South Korean and U.S. militaries usually stage the two drills in March for about two months but the period of this year’s field exercise was cut by half, mainly due to the Olympics, said the South Korean official, who asked not to be identified.
The exercises will be of a “scale similar to that of the previous years” and are meant “to improve our readiness against various North Korean threats”, the official said.
North Korea is pursuing nuclear and missile programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions and has made no secret of its plans to develop a missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
Such plans, and the exchange of insults between Kim and Trump, had led to increased fears of confrontation on the Korean peninsula in recent months before the diplomatic contacts. China, North Korea’s main ally, says it is happy to see an easing of tensions.
The Pentagon said the North Korean military had been notified about the schedule for the drills by the United Nations Command.
“Our combined exercises are defence-oriented and there is no reason for North Korea to view them as a provocation,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan said in a statement.
The South Korean official said consultations were underway over whether U.S. strategic assets such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers or bombers would be deployed for the drills.
Logan said the two joint drills would involve about 23,700 U.S. troops and 300,000 South Korean forces.
He said they were not in response to any specific North Korean actions or the current situation on the Korean peninsula.
The Key Resolve simulated exercises would likely overlap with a summit between the two Koreas, planned for late April, the South Korean official said.
After the postponement of the drills was announced in January, Pyongyang agreed to hold the first official talks with Seoul in more than two years and then sent athletes and officials to the Winter Olympics.
Those talks led to a visit this month by a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang for a meeting with the North Korean leader. Delegation leader Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, said Kim committed to denuclearization and expressed eagerness to meet Trump as soon as possible, an offer the U.S. president quickly accepted.
Chung said Kim was expected to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April before meeting Trump by the end of May.
The two Koreas held working-level talks on Tuesday at the border village of Panmunjom over Seoul’s plan to send an artistic troupe for a concert in Pyongyang.
Despite the North’s denunciation of past drills, Chung said Kim understood that the allies must continue their “routine” joint military exercises.
Pyongyang has not confirmed the exchange and threatened earlier this month to take “counteraction” if the United States and South Korea went ahead with the exercises.
The joint drills ran from March 1-April 30 in 2017 and included the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no U.S. aircraft carriers would take part this year, which he said was according to plan and not related to the political situation.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Peter Cooney and Paul Tait)