SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials said yesterday a proposed delay in military drills with the United States was aimed at ensuring a peaceful 2018 Winter Olympics, not ending the North Korean missile crisis, as relations with China suffered new setbacks.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is seeking to soothe relations with North Korea, which is pursuing nuclear and missile programmes in defiance of UN sanctions, and with China, the North’s lone major ally, before the Games begin in South Korea in February.
China, which hosted years of on-again-off-again six-party talks to try to end the North Korea stand-off, resumed some blocks on group tours to South Korea, industry sources said, and rebuked Seoul for firing warning shots at Chinese fishing boats.
On Tuesday, Mr Moon, who visited China last week, said he had proposed postponing major military drills with the United States until after the Games, a move his office said was designed to reassure athletes and spectators.
“This is confined to our efforts to host a peaceful Olympics,” an official from the presidential Blue House said. “We are only talking about the exercises which are supposed to take place during the Olympics and Paralympics.”
North Korea sees the regular joint exercises as preparation for war, while China is still angry about the deployment of a US anti-missile system, commonly known as THAAD, by South Korea, whose powerful radar it fears could see deep inside its territory.
The South argues it needs THAAD to guard against the threat posed by North Korea, which regularly threatens to destroy South Korea, Japan and the United States.
The proposed delay in drills was discussed during a summit last week between Mr Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping, after the proposal had already been submitted to the Americans, the Blue House official said.
China and Russia have proposed a “freeze for freeze” arrangement under which North Korea would stop its nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a halt to the exercises. However, the official denied the proposed delay had anything to do with the freeze idea.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Ottawa on Tuesday he was unaware of any plans to “alter longstanding and scheduled and regular military exercises”.
North Korea has stepped up its missile and nuclear tests at an unprecedented rate this year, and any new provocation from the North would “inevitably have an impact” on the exercises, the Blue House official said.
“It is a display of the president’s strong message that North Korea must not conduct any provocation (during the Olympics),” the official told reporters.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported yesterday, citing an unidentified person connected to South Korean intelligence, that North Korea was conducting biological experiments to test the possibility of loading anthrax-laden warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The Asahi report said the US government was aware of the tests, which were meant to ascertain whether the anthrax bacteria could survive the high temperatures that occur during the warheads’ re-entry from space.