South Korea Faces Tough Choices Amid U.S. Exercise Plans, Threats from North

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is faced with tough choices as he sets out to pursue peace with North Korea while maintaining his country's decades-old military alliance with the United States amid yet another round of tensions on the peninsula.

During a meeting of South Korea's National Security Council standing committee on Thursday, National Security Office Director Suh Hoon urged North Korea not to escalate frictions between the two countries as Pyongyang lashed out at Seoul for preparing to hold military drills with Washington in the upcoming days.

On the third day of radio silence on cross-border communication lines with North Korea, Suh said that he and other security officials have "closely analyzed North Korea's move linked with the South Korea-U.S. combined training as well as South-North Korea, North Korea-U.S. and North Korea-China relations," according to the Hankyoreh newspaper.

"Reaffirming the importance of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and refraining from actions that escalate tensions, they agreed to focus on cooperation with relevant countries to resume dialogue as soon as possible," Suh said.

The remarks came a day after back-to-back warnings delivered by senior North Korean officials regarding the upcoming U.S.-South Korea maneuvers set to begin Monday.

North, Korea, Kim, South, Korea, Moon, Pyongyang
North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in review honor guards during a welcoming ceremony at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport on September 18, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim and Moon met for their third and latest Inter-Korean summit, the fifth ever since the 1945 division of the peninsula and the war that followed, to discuss peace, but tensions would return in the three years since. Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images

Kim Yong Chol, director of the ruling Korean Workers' Party Central Committee United Front Department, issued a press statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday in which the elite general castigated South Korea for beginning preliminary training with the U.S. a day earlier.

He said such a move, made just about two weeks after inter-Korean communications were reestablished after a 14-month silence, constituted Seoul "defying the opportunity of a turn hardly made amid unanimous expectation of all the compatriots at home and abroad for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula."

Kim Yong Chol accused South Korea of disregarding its northern neighbor's advice when it "opted for alliance with outsiders, not harmony with compatriots, escalation of tension, not détente, and confrontation, not improved relations," and warned of retaliation.

He asserted that North Korea would ensure Moon's administration "realize by the minute what a dangerous choice they made and what a serious security crisis they will face because of their wrong choice," and accused South Korea of "answering our good faith with hostile acts."

"It is clear that there is no other option for us as South Korea and the U.S. opted for confrontation with our state, without making any change," Kim Yong Chol said. "We will keep going on with what we should do."

That same day, during an interview with the state-run Tass Russian News Agency, North Korean ambassador to Russia Sin Hong Chol demanded that the U.S. immediately withdraw its troops and military equipment from the Korean Peninsula, accusing Washington of deliberately sabotaging reconciliation efforts between Pyongyang and Seoul.

"The actions of the United States, who persistently forced through the aggressive military exercises at such an extreme time when the international attention is concentrating on Korean Peninsula developments, show that they are the instigators who destroy peace and security of the region," Sin said, "while 'commitment to diplomacy' and 'dialogue without preconditions' that the current U.S. administration is ranting about are nothing but hypocrisy."

He said North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), remained committed to the principle of "force for force" and "good for good" in its dealing with the U.S.

The dual warnings came a day after Kim Yo Jong, vice department director of the ruling Korean Workers' Party Central Committee and sister of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, called the exercises "the most vivid expression of the U.S. hostile policy towards the DPRK, designed to stifle our state by force, and an unwelcome act of self-destruction for which a dear price should be paid as they threaten the safety of our people and further imperil the situation on the Korean peninsula."

She added a warning of her own.

"The dangerous war exercises pushed ahead by the U.S. and the South Korean side in disregard of our repeated warnings will surely make them face more serious security threat," she said in a statement published by the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Whatever the scale and mode," she added, "the joint military exercises are of aggressive nature as they are a war rehearsal and preliminary nuclear war exercise for further rounding off the preparations for putting into practice the operational plan with the pre-emptive strike at us as the gist."

She also accused the U.S. of provoking unrest, and accused South Korea of squandering an opportunity for peace that has eluded the two Koreas since their 1940s division by the Soviet Union and the U.S. after World War II and the deadly three-year war that erupted between the two neighbors the following decade.

In what was once seen as a significant sign of hope, the two Koreas held a record three inter-Korean summits in 2018, the same year that former President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong Un for an unprecedented bilateral sit-down between the two foes.

The process began to unravel the following year, however, as two follow-up meetings between the U.S. and North Korean leaders failed to produce an agreement for lifting sanctions and denuclearization, and Pyongyang ultimately pulled back from the process and severed communications with Seoul.

Since President Joe Biden came to office in January, Moon has sought to encourage him to pursue engagement with North Korea. The White House has said it's open to such diplomacy, while at the same time reserving the right to respond to any perceived escalations.

A spokesperson for the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs recounted the efforts by the country, officially known as the Republic of Korea (ROK), to rekindle inter-Korean talks and U.S.-North Korea negotiations beginning with Moon's meeting with Biden for their first bilateral summit in May.

"The ROK government laid the groundwork for restoring a virtuous cycle between the two Koreas and U.S.-DPRK relations at the ROK-U.S. Summit held on May 21," the spokesperson told Newsweek. "The ROK and the U.S. are committed to continuing close coordination to resume dialogue with the DPRK."

"During the Summit, the Leaders of the ROK and the U.S. reaffirmed their shared commitment to complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula through diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous agreements such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement," the spokesperson said. "They also agreed to continue facilitating the provision of humanitarian aid to the neediest North Koreans and the reunion of separated families of the two Koreas. President Biden expressed his support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement, and cooperation."

The spokesperson also reviewed recent discussions that have occurred on the issue. These included telephone conversations between the two countries' top diplomats in June and early August, vice foreign ministerial-level meetings in June and a strategic dialogue in July, a consultation in June and a phone call in July between their chief negotiators on the North Korea issue, and the discussion between the director generals of the two allies last week.

During the most recent interaction last Thursday involving U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-young, the spokesperson noted that "the two sides had in-depth discussions on ways to cooperate with the DPRK in such areas as humanitarian cooperation and agreed to make continued efforts to engage with the DPRK."

The State Department's readout of that call also made reference to potential humanitarian routes for cooperation regarding North Korea.

"The Secretary and the Foreign Minister reaffirmed their commitment to complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, and the Secretary confirmed U.S. support for inter-Korean dialogue and engagement," the State Department said at the time. "The Secretary and the Foreign Minister also discussed recent developments in the DPRK and agreed to explore humanitarian initiatives on the Korean Peninsula."

South Korea has not ruled out providing vaccines to North Korea, which is not known to have accepted outside offers of vaccine assistance, even from friendly neighbors China and Russia. The infamously insular state has also not reported a single COVID-19 case since the outbreak of the pandemic, but South Korea has been skeptical of this claim.

An official with South Korea's Ministry of Unification told Newsweek last week that "inter-Korean cooperation on COVID-19 response including vaccine sharing is a matter that can be discussed once the government ensures access of South Korean nationals to vaccination, and confirms North Korea's willingness to cooperate."

So far, no such plan has materialized.

"However, specific plans aimed at the provision of COVID-19 vaccines to North Korea has not been reviewed by the government at this point," the official said.

The Foreign Ministry spokesperson later offered a similar assessment, saying that, so far, "the ROK government has not reviewed plans on providing vaccines to the DPRK."

The State Department also said vaccine-sharing plans have not yet been established.

"The DPRK has created significant barriers to the delivery of assistance by closing its borders and rejecting offers of international aid, while also limiting the personnel responsible for implementing and monitoring existing humanitarian projects," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek last week. "We do not currently have plans to share vaccines with the DPRK."

Both the State Department spokesperson and a senior administration official also said that "diplomacy and dialogue are essential to achieving complete denuclearization and to establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula" and welcomed the recent resumption of communications between the two Koreas.

"We remain prepared to engage in diplomacy toward our objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," the senior administration official added. "As we've said, we have reached out to the DPRK in line with our policy of openness to diplomacy. Our offer remains to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions. Ultimately, we hope DPRK will respond positively to our outreach."

US, South, Korea, Air, Force, F-16, training
U.S. Air Force Colonel John Gallemore, 8th Fighter Wing commander and F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, and Republic of Korea Air Force Colonel Do-Hyoung Kim, 38th Fighter Group commander and KF-16 pilot, fly together in formation over the Yellow Sea, June 29. The U.S. and South Korea have practiced joint maneuvers since their 1950s war against North Korea, which was supported at the time by China and the Soviet Union. Staff Sergeant Mya M. Crosby/Commander, Task Force 71/Destroyer Squadron 15/U.S. Air Force

But the messages from Pyongyang have so far only suggested otherwise.

In response to the latest North Korean warnings, State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to speak directly to what the message from Pyongyang might be, but did reiterate the U.S. message.

"The joint military exercises, they are purely defensive in nature," Price said. "We have long maintained the United States harbors no hostile intent towards the DPRK. It is true we remain committed to the security of the Republic of Korea and our combined defense posture in accordance with the ironclad alliance we have with the ROK."

"We support intra-Korean dialogue, we support intra-Korean engagement, and will continue to work with our ROK partners to that end," he added.

U.S. Army Colonel Lee Peters, a spokesperson for U.S. Forces Korea, told Newsweek last week that joint exercises were not discussed with the media as a matter of policy, but, "that being said, any discussions on combined training events are a ROK-U.S. bilateral decision and reached with a mutual agreement."

Moon, meanwhile, continues to face a more imminent threat at home in the final months of his second and final term, which will end after elections in March, as the COVID-19 Delta variant takes hold in South Korea and infections continue to sweep the nation, including individuals associated with the U.S. military presence there.

On Tuesday, just as the preliminary joint training began, U.S. Forces Korea announced that eight more service members tested positive for the disease. As the U.S. military raced to curb the coronavirus' spread among its own ranks, it also emphasized that it remained prepared to defend the host country.

"USFK continues to maintain a robust combined defense posture to protect the Republic of Korea against any threat or adversary, while maintaining prudent preventive measures to protect the force," the U.S. command said in a statement Wednesday.