S. Korea snubs N. Korea's calls to cancel joint military drills

By Kim Kwang-tae

SEOUL, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States vowed to go ahead with their joint military exercises in the coming months as planned, a move that analysts say may prompt Pyongyang to stage provocations.

North Korea has repeatedly called on South Korea to scrap the joint military drills scheduled to run from late February to April. The North suspects the military exercises could be a rehearsal for a nuclear war against it. Seoul and Washington have said the routine drills are defensive in nature.

Late on Thursday, the North's powerful National Defense Commission took one step further by proposing halting all slander between the sides as it dangled a prospect of reunions of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Seoul questioned Pyongyang's sincerity, noting it is North Korea that has frequently criticized South Korea, not the other way around.

Kim Eui-do, spokesman for the unification ministry in charge of inter-Korean relations, said South Korea will monitor whether North will back up with action its offer to stop the slandering.

"Our military drills are annual defensive drills conducted by a sovereign country," Kim said Friday. "The North should take responsible steps for its past provocations instead of taking issue with our legitimate military drills."

In 2010, the North sank a South Korean warship near their western sea border and later shelled a nearby border island, killing a total of 50 South Koreans, mostly soldiers. Still, the North has refused to take responsibility for the deadly attacks.

Defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok also confirmed that the joint drills will be held as scheduled, dismissing Pyongyang's demand as "nonsense."

"As the Republic of Korea is a democratic country, it does not launch preemptive attacks," Kim said in a briefing, using South Korea's official name.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed North Korea's demand, noting there has been no change in how the U.S. engages militarily with South Korea, either in partnership or in any of the joint exercises.

Sue Mi Terry, a former senior CIA analyst on North Korea, said she believes Pyongyang's latest peace offensive is simply an attempt to lay the groundwork for future provocations to come.

North Korea "can use the joint exercises as an excuse for future provocations, such as missile or nuclear tests or a limited attack against South Korea," she said in e-mailed comments to Yonhap News Agency on Friday.

The planned drills come amid concerns that the North may stage provocations as it seeks to forge internal unity following last month's execution of its leader Kim Jong-un's once-powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in the biggest political upheaval in decades.

North Korea has a track record of carrying out provocations at a time of internal instability in an apparent attempt to divert people's attention and forge unity.

"The net effect of the Jang execution will more likely be to undermine regime stability than to strengthen it," said Terry, who is now a senior research scholar at Columbia University. "Increased instability at the top of the North Korean suggests that another round of provocations is very likely and all this 'talk' is simply a bait for Seoul."

South Korea called on the North not to link family reunions to the military drills, calling the family reunions an urgent humanitarian issue. Most of the separated family members are in their 70s and 80s, and they want to see their long-lost relatives before they die.

North Korea has recently spurned Seoul's proposal to hold family reunions, citing, among other things, South Korea's annual joint military exercises with the U.S.

Kim, the unification ministry spokesman, called on the North to "immediately realize family reunions without any conditions."

The divided Koreas have held more than a dozen rounds of reunions since their landmark summit in 2000, bringing together more than 21,700 family members who had not seen each other since the Korean War. The conflict ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, leaving the two sides still technically at war.

Also Thursday, the North's National Defense Commission said that the North is committed to denuclearization and that its nuclear force is simply a deterrent against the U.S. nuclear threat.

The unification ministry spokesman added North Korea should immediately take substantial steps toward denuclearization if Pyongyang wants peace on the Korean Peninsula.

"Our position remains unchanged that we are seeking to develop inter-Korean relations by building confidence between the South and North," he said.

<All rights reserved by Yonhap News Agency>