South Korean and US tanks fire live rounds during a joint military exercise near the DMZ on April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

Washington and Seoul have announced that their annual joint military drills will commence from April 1, while a massive diplomat effort is underway to lay the foundations for two summits designed to resolve issues on the troubled peninsula.

The military drills, involving over 300,000 troops, were delayed because of the 2018 Winter Olympiad, which finished when the Paralympics concluded on March 18. An intensive inter-Korean dialog on the sidelines of the Games resulted in plans for an inter-Korean summit and – according to a South Korean delegation which went to Pyongyang – a promise from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to suspend nuclear and missile tests and to convene a summit with US President Donald Trump.

All players are engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity ahead of the inter-Korean summit set for late April, and a North Korea-US summit set for May.

No exact dates for either summit have been announced, though the inter-Korean meeting in late April will take place in the southern zone of Panmunjeom, the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.

However, it is not even clear yet on which continent the historic meeting between Kim and Trump will be held.

Military drills shortened

Details of this year’s drills were announced in Washington late on Monday evening, and on Tuesday in Seoul, agencies in both capitals reported. Although the two allies said they would be “similar in scale” to last year’s war games, they will be shorter in duration.

US military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported that the ‘Foal Eagle’ drill will begin on April 1 and run for a month. The exercise is actually a boots-on-the-ground drill that usually involves over 300,000 troops and includes marine landings and live-fire artillery and air strikes. ‘Key Resolve’, a computerized command post exercise, would begin on April 23 and last for two weeks, the US military newspaper added.

Last year, ‘Foal Eagle’ ran for two months from March 1, while ‘Key Resolve’ ran for two weeks from March 8.

However, South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap Newswire stated that the two allies have, in fact, left the ‘Key Resolve’ dates flexible because of the anticipated Kim-Trump summit.

“Initially, South Korea and the U.S. planned to start ‘Key Resolve’ on April 23 but it was rescheduled to mid-April,” an informed source told the newswire. “It’s relatively easy to adjust the schedule of ‘Key Resolve’ as it’s largely computer simulated. It will depend on whether and when the Kim-Trump summit will be held.”

If the Yonhap source proves correct, ‘Foal Eagle’ will overlap with the Kim-Moon summit, but neither exercise will clash with the mooted Kim-Trump summit.

It is not known what hardware and units Washington may dispatch to the peninsula this year to beef up the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. Big ticket offensive assets such as aircraft carriers, strategic bombers and even elements of the elite SEAL Team 6, which famously assassinated Osama Bin Laden, have all visited the peninsula in recent years.

Frenzied diplomatic game

Following the Winter Olympics thaw, during which North Korean performers, cheerleaders and taekwondo demonstrators visited the South, South Korean cultural and sports delegations will soon head to the North. From March 31 to April 3 a 160-strong South Korean cultural delegation, including K-pop singers, will hold performances in North Korea, TV news reports said. A South Korean taekwondo team will also head to North Korea for demonstrations and joint performances in the first half of April.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho held three days of high-level meetings in Sweden last week. “The foreign ministers discussed opportunities and challenges for continued diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict as well as bilateral relations,” the Swedish Foreign Ministry said after talks wrapped up, according to Reuters. Stockholm has been tight-lipped on the content of the meetings, but Sweden, which maintains a large embassy in Pyongyang, has traditionally acted as a proxy for US diplomatic interests in North Korea.

Meanwhile, CNN reports that Sweden is helping to negotiate the release of three US citizens currently being held in North Korean prisons.

So-called “1.5 Track” meetings – an unusual channel in which American academics, Korea watchers and retired diplomats meet with serving North Korean diplomats behind closed doors – will take place in Finland this week. Leading the North Korean delegation is North Korea’s point man for US affairs, Choe Kang-il, and South Korean officials will also be present at the meeting, AP reported.

US National Security Adviser H R McMaster met his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in San Francisco for talks over the weekend on denuclearization, South Korea announced said in a statement. Topics discussed included both the inter-Korean and North Korea-US summits.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-Hwa has a particularly full dance card. Following a lightning trip to the United States from March 15-17, when she met officials from Congress, the State Department and media, she has gone to Brussels for European Union ministerial meetings to discuss cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue. She also met the NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the EU Council.

Even so, the fast-approaching summit between Trump and Kim may go ahead without a clear agenda. Set for May, but with no exact date, no location or agenda beyond “denuclearization” yet decided, Kang said the personal chemistry between the two leaders could be key.

“I think it would be hard, time-wise, to draw up a detailed (denuclearization) roadmap before the North Korea-U.S. summit,” Kang said in an interview in Brussels with Yonhap News Agency. “I suppose that through an agreement on the overall outline between the leaders, there will be a future direction and timetable shaping up.”

In yet another diplomatic huddle, South Korea and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will meet this week to discuss North Korea’s nuclear issue and nonproliferation, the foreign ministry told a regular briefing on Tuesday. North Korea demanded in 2002 that IAEA inspectors leave the country.

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