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Unification Minister calls for flexible solution to the joint military exercises

Unification Minister Lee In-young speaks during a press conference in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Unification Minister Lee In-young speaks during a press conference in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Unification Minister Lee In-young on Monday stressed the need to find a flexible solution to the upcoming joint military exercise between Washington and Seoul, to prevent any further flare-up of cross-border tensions.

Lee underlined four areas that need to be taken into account when deciding whether to hold the combined military drills, which have long irked Pyongyang. These are COVID-19, the Tokyo Olympics, the lack of an established US policy on the Korean Peninsula, and Seoul’s envisioned retaking of wartime operational control from the US.

“As both Koreas and the US so far are refraining from areas that could escalate further tensions, I hope we could come up with a wise and flexible solution to the joint exercise that won’t lead to any serious military tensions,” Lee told reporters at a press conference in Seoul.

“I hope the North’s view is also flexible and open,” he said, adding that this issue is not solely a matter for Seoul.

Lee’s remarks came as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un demanded the suspension of joint military drills between the allies at the recent congress of the ruling Workers’ Party, as a way to improve the currently strained inter-Korean relations.

The US and South Korea have typically held large-scale military drills twice a year in March and August, with their springtime exercise expected to take place this year as planned. While the military drills in recent years have been scaled down or delayed indefinitely to pacify Pyongyang, the North has continued to lambaste the drills, which it regards as war games undertaken in preparation to invade the North.

During the press conference, Lee also said he hopes to make headway with stalled inter-Korean relations amid deadlocked denuclearization talks with North Korea, as President Joe Biden took office in Washington.

“The US appears to be approaching the North Korean issue in a very serious and calm manner,” he said. “It became even more critical between our government and the Biden administration for close cooperation to manage the situation and efforts for development.”

Adding that it will take time for the new US administration to review its policy on the Korean Peninsula and for the US and North Korea to sit down for talks, Lee said his ministry will use the time to focus and take the initiative in some areas, rather than adopting a wait-and-see stance.

“With the goal of advancing the peace process on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and cooperation, I will make efforts to restore inter-Korean relations in the first half and normalize relations in the second half of the year,” Lee said.

He vowed to restore the communication channel between the two Koreas, and expressed hope of resuming inter-Korean family reunions. He proposed starting with a virtual meeting for war-torn families in time for the Lunar New Year next month.

In regards to Pyongyang keeping mum on Joe Biden’s victory for months, a high-level ministry official said the silence itself may be the message. “It could be interpreted that (the North is) closely watching the US’ policy direction toward Pyongyang.”

As for the possibility of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visiting South Korea this year, the official stressed that Kim’s visit is a “promise” between the two leaders and still remains “valid.”

He added it would be desirable for Kim to visit South Korea within this year, considering the presidential election and the end of President Moon Jae-in’s term next year.

During Moon’s visit to Pyongyang in September 2018 for his second summit with Kim, the North Korean leader agreed to visit Seoul “at an early date.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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