SEOUL — US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday that he does not regret postponing a US-South Korean military exercise, even though the gesture was rejected by North Korea as not enough to restart nuclear diplomacy.
The prospects for a resumption of the nuclear talks are unclear, with Pyongyang stepping up pressure on Washington to make bigger concessions. On Wednesday, the North’s first vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, repeated that the country won’t return to the negotiating table unless the United States drops its hostile policy against the North.
“We can discuss the nuclear issue with the US only when it withdraws all its hostile polices” against North Korea,” Choe told reporters during a visit to Moscow, according to South Korean media footage. “In that sense, I think a summit or leaders’ talks isn’t an interesting issue for us.”
The United States and South Korea announced Sunday that they had indefinitely postponed the annual Vigilant Ace aerial training as part of efforts to revive the nuclear talks. North Korea has called the training an invasion rehearsal. In response, a senior North Korean official, Kim Yong Chol, said Tuesday that the United States must scrap that military drill completely if it wants nuclear negotiations to resume.
North Korea wants the United States to lift major international sanctions on it and provide security assurances before it abandons its nuclear arsenal. But the United States has said sanctions would stay in place until North Korea takes serious steps toward denuclearization.
Before boarding his plane in Hanoi for a flight to Washington, Esper called North Korea’s response to the drill’s postponement “not as positive as we would have liked.”
“I don’t regret taking the high road,” he added.
Esper also said he does not believe there is a rift in the US-South Korean alliance, despite a breakdown this week in negotiations over a US demand for a fivefold increase in what Seoul pays to keep 28,500 American troops on its soil.
The Pentagon also denied a report in South Korea’s biggest newspaper that the United States was considering withdrawing some troops if Seoul didn’t agree to that increase. There was “absolutely no truth” to the report, said chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, who noted Esper has “repeatedly reiterated our ironclad commitment” to South Korea.
“We’re not threatening allies over this,” Esper said in Hanoi.
A US-led diplomacy aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons has largely been deadlocked since the February collapse of a summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim has demanded the United States come up with new measures to salvage the nuclear talks by year’s end.