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North Korea ignores US-South Korea military drills

North Korea has remained unusually silent as US and South Korea military drills kick off. Does the Kim regime's softer tone indicate it is ready to enter negotiations over its weapons program? Julian Ryall reports.

The joint US-South Korea Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises began on Sunday with nearly 300,000 South Korean military personnel and 11,500 US troops involved in a series of field drills and computer-based tabletop exercises.

In previous years, the commencement of Foal Eagle would have provoked a barrage of propaganda from Pyongyang decrying the drills as a prelude to an invasion of the North and the forerunner of a nuclear exchange.

However, North Korea has suspended its rhetoric this year, warning of a conflict engulfing the Korean Peninsula.

The US is also taking a different approach this year: isn't deploying Rockwell B-1 Lancer bombers based in Guam, and is scaling back the presence of the aircraft carrier strike groups formed around the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Carl Vinson.

Read more: US and South Korea to resume joint military exercises

Kim Jong Un pledges 'denuclearization' in talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping

"The exercises are much smaller this year, only about half the size of last year, because the leaders of North and South Korea are planning to hold a summit before the end of the month and there has been good progress on the question of a detente in the last few months," Ahn Yin Hay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul, told DW.

Südkorea US-Truppen beim Militärmanöver (picture-alliance/Yonhap)

US military helicopters at the US Army base Camp Humphreys located south of Seoul

Exercises delayed by Olympics 

Traditionally, the exercises would take place earlier in the year, but this year's Winter Olympic Games in South Korea changed the schedule. 

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hinted in his New Year's address that he would be willing to send a North Korean team to the games in order to start building bridges with his long-time ideological rival, the South Korean government was able to convince the US to postpone the exercises until after the games had been concluded.

Many were skeptical of North Korea's motives - and plenty remain so - but Kim has visited Xi Jinping in China for talks and is scheduled to meet Moon Jae In, his South Korean counterpart, before the end of April.

Read more: Opinion: A big stage for the 'little rocket man'

There is also a broad agreement in place for Kim to meet US President Donald Trump this spring, which would mark a dramatic diplomatic about-face for two leaders that just a few months ago were hurling insults at each other.

"North Korea wanted us [South Korea] to cancel the military exercises entirely as a prerequisite for face-to-face talks between the leaders, but neither Seoul nor Washington could accept that demand," said Ahn.

"But the feeling is that this is compromise acceptable to both sides - and even Kim said that he understands that the South needs to carry out training drills when he met with Moon's representatives."

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Broken promises

Ahn said that there is growing optimism in South Korea that this time the North has come to the negotiating table with a genuine desire to end the political stalemate on the Korean Peninsula, but added that it is "too early" to completely trust the North.

"They have made promises in the past only to break them immediately," she said. "But this time I believe that the regime has been caused such pain by the sanctions, and in a short period of time, they realized that there was a real threat to their system and that they need a way out."

Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, told DW that the "blood-curdling rhetoric" of previous years is taking a back seat this time around because diplomacy appears to be making headway.

"I do believe there is a desire to open a dialogue and channels and to go down the path in the near term," he said. "And if they are open to dialogue, then propaganda is counterproductive because it is about sowing fear, ratcheting up political pressure and causing panic in Seoul and Washington."

China Kim Jong Un, Nordkorea bei Präsident Xi Jinping in Peking (picture-alliance/Newscom/KCNA)

North Korean leader Kim and Chinese President Xi meet in Beijing on March 28

North still critical of South's weaponry 

Pyongyang has not, however, missed every opportunity in recent weeks to claim that its enemies are preparing to invade. Late last month, the South Korean military accepted the first new F-35A Lightning fighter after it rolled off Lockheed Martin's production lines in Fort Worth, Texas. A total of six of the aircraft are due to be delivered to the South this year, with 40 more on order and South Korea considering purchasing an additional 20.

After the hand-over ceremony, North Korean state media said the purchase of the fighters "gets in the way of the ongoing peace momentum" on the peninsula, adding that "dialogue and confrontation can never co-exist at the same time."

Read more:Germany's cabinet approved record-breaking arms exports 

The North also objected strongly after the purchase of 90 Taurus air-launched cruise missiles by the South. A joint German-Swedish weapon, the Taurus gives South Korea the ability to hit targets anywhere in the North, but the deal was denounced by state media: "Seoul should put a complete stop to a 'combat with dialogue' attitude, which will end in failure."

At present, the signs are that bilateral and even multilateral talks will indeed take place, bringing the nations of the region back together. It remains to be seen, however, whether agreements can be reached that will conclude with nuclear weapons being removed from the Korean Peninsula.

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