SEOUL: South Korea launched a military drill yesterday with the United States against a simulated North Korean invasion, even as a recent easing of tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang gathered momentum.
Although the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill is largely played out on computers, it involves more than 80,000 South Korean and US troops and has repeatedly been condemned by Pyongyang as a provocative war rehearsal.
This year, however, the criticism from the North has been relatively muted as both Koreas have focused on reopening a joint industrial zone that was closed in April at the height of a surge in military tensions on the divided peninsula.
After seven rounds of negotiations, the two rivals agreed last week on a framework for resuming operations at the Kaesong zone, which is an important hard currency earner for the impoverished North.
Building on that breakthrough, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye urged Pyongyang to “open its heart” and resume reunions -- suspended three years ago -- for families separated since the 1950-53 war.
The North on Sunday agreed to hold talks on the issue and also proposed re-starting South Korean tours to its Mount Kumgang resort.
The sudden flurry of proposals and positive responses come just three months after the two Koreas found themselves on a virtual war footing with the North hurling threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes.
The crisis in April and May was triggered by the North’s third nuclear test in February and fanned by a series of large-scale South Korea-US military exercises.
Park Hyeong-Jung, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said any North-South thaw was inherently limited by the North’s refusal to give up its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent.
“Unless the North takes some tangible steps for denuclearisation, it will be hard (for Seoul) to resume the Mount Kumgang tours that pump a huge amount of money into the North’s regime, or other cross-border projects,” he said.
The defensive 10-day joint drill that kicked off yesterday is relatively low key, with participating troops largely confined to barracks and no high-visibility land, sea or air manoeuvres.