Esper doesn’t regret delaying drills, despite N. Korea snub

Esper doesn’t regret postponing a U.S.-South Korean military air exercise, though the gesture was rejected by North Korea as not enough to restart nuclear diplomacy

The prospects for a resumption of the nuclear diplomacy are unclear, with Pyongyang stepping up its pressures on Washington to make bigger concessions. On Wednesday, the North’s 1st vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, repeated it won’t return to a negotiating table unless the United States drops its hostile policy against the North.

The U.S. and South Korea announced Sunday they indefinitely postponed the annual Vigilant Ace aerial training as part of efforts to revive the nuclear talks, as North Korea has called the training an invasion rehearsal. In response, senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol said Tuesday the U.S. must scrap that military drill completely and abandon its hostility against his country if it wants to see the resumption of the nuclear negotiations.

North Korea wants the U.S. to lift major international sanctions on it and provide security assurances before it fully abandons its nuclear arsenal. But the U.S. has maintained sanctions would stay in place until North Korea takes serious steps toward denuclearization.

Esper also said he does not believe there is a rift in the U.S.-South Korean alliance, despite a breakdown this week in negotiations over a U.S. demand for a five-fold 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 U.S. was considering withdrawing some troops if Seoul didn’t agree to that increase. There was “absolutely no truth” to the Chosun Ilbo report, said chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, who noted Esper “repeatedly reiterated our ironclad commitment” to South Korea during his talks with South Korean officials.

“We’re not threatening allies over this,” Esper said in Hanoi.

A U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons has largely been deadlocked since the February collapse of a summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Un has demanded the U.S. come up with new, acceptable measures to salvage the nuclear talks by year’s end.