The U.S. and South Korean militaries have resumed springtime drills in South Korea after pausing exercises last February due to coronavirus concerns.
Austin discussed the U.S. military’s commitment to “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and “the importance of maintaining military readiness” during a press conference Wednesday.
“Our force remains ready to ‘fight tonight,’ and we continue to make progress toward the eventual transition of wartime Operational Control to a [Republic of Korea]-commanded, future Combined Forces Command,” the defense secretary said.
He continued: “While meeting all the conditions for this transition will take more time, I’m confident that this process will strengthen our alliance.”
U.S.-led diplomacy focusing on North Korea’s nuclear weapons remains stalemated because of disputes over sanctions. Experts are debating whether the United States and its allies should settle for a deal that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear activities in return for relaxing sanctions to prevent its arsenal from growing.
Earlier this week, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned the United States to “refrain from causing a stink,” while criticizing the U.S.-South Korean drills that her government views as an invasion rehearsal.
“We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off powder smell in our land,” Kim Yo Jong said in a statement to state news agency KCNA, according to Reuters. “If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
Some experts say North Korea may further raise animosities with missile tests to boost its negotiation leverage. North Korea’s moribund economy is hurting because of the pandemic-related border closure that has significantly shrunk its external trade and a spate of natural disasters last summer.
After Thursday’s talks, Blinken, Austin and their South Korean counterparts said in a joint statement that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues are “a priority for the alliance” and reaffirmed a shared commitment to address those issues.