US, South Korea postpone joint exercise criticised by North Korea

Published: November 17, 2019 13:52:06 | Updated: November 19, 2019 15:02:17

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, right, and South Korea defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo attend a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

The United States and South Korea on Sunday said they were postponing a joint military air exercise that North Korea has criticised as provocative.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and his South Korean counterpart made the announcement in Bangkok, where they were attending an Asia defence ministers’ conference.

Esper told reporters he did not consider the postponement a concession to North Korea.

“We have made this decision as an act of goodwill to contribute to an environment conducive to diplomacy and the advancement of peace,” Esper said.

As recently as Friday, when Esper was in Seoul to consult with South Korean officials, there was no word on postponing the military air exercise, which had been called Vigilant Ace.

Seoul and Washington had scaled back the exercise recently and changed the name, but North Korea strongly objected, calling it evidence of a lack of interest in improving relations.

The North has demanded accommodations before it will agree to resume nuclear negotiations, the Associated Press reported.

South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said the exercise had been put off pending further consultations between Seoul and Washington. No new date has been set.

“I see this as a good-faith effort by the United States and the Republic of Korea to enable peace ... to facilitate a political agreement, a deal if you will, that leads to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” Esper said.

He said Seoul and Washington encourage North Korea “to demonstrate the same goodwill” as it considers decisions on its own military training, exercises and testing.

He also urged the North to return to the negotiating table “without precondition or hesitation.”

Esper said that even without the planned exercise of South Korean and American air forces, both militaries “will remain at a high state of readiness” for potential combat.

The US has about 28,000 troops in South Korea.

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