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US resumes military drills with South Korea ahead of talks with North in New York

The United States and South Korea have resumed joint military exercises that were indefinitely suspended by President Donald Trump ahead of high-profile talks between top American and North Korean diplomats in New York later this week.

The two-week-long drills — dubbed the Korean Marine Exchange Program (KMEP) — kicked off on Monday around the southeastern port city of Pohang, according to a spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of Defense.

Some 500 South Korean and American marines participate in the drills.

“The KMEP will start from November in accordance with the South Korea-US annual plan,” South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying. “It is an annual tactical combined forces training aimed at maintaining our joint defense posture.”

The KMEP, which was carried out 14 times in fiscal 2016 and 17 times in fiscal 2017, was suspended in June after Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held a historic summit in Singapore in June, during which they agreed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Trump also promised to indefinitely suspend joint US-South Korea military exercises that were seen by Pyongyang as preparations to invade the North.

The US president said later that he saw no reason for “spending large amounts of money on joint US-South Korea war games.”

Pyongyang has so far taken several steps towards denuclearization, including shuttering its main nuclear test site with plans to dismantle several more. It has said it “expects reciprocal steps and not endless demands for full disarmament” from Washington, which has so far taken no moves in return.

The North says the least step Washington can take is to lift sanctions against the country, but the US insists that the restrictions would remain in place until North Korea is nuclear free.

US-North Korea talks in New York

The military maneuvers come as North Korea is scheduled to send Foreign Minister Kim Yong-chol to New York this week, where he is expected to hold talks with Secretary of State Pompeo over denuclearization and plans for a second summit between Trump and Kim.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) greets North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho at the 25th ASEAN Regional Forum Retreat in Singapore, August 4, 2018. (Photo by AP)

It remains unclear if the drills will affect the planned talks.

Pompeo told CBS News on Sunday that he expected “some real progress including an effort to make sure that the summit between our two leaders can take place where we can make substantial steps towards denuclearization.”

But when asked if Pyongyang could expect sanctions relief, he said, “It is not only complete denuclearization, but our capacity to verify that that has taken place, is also a prerequisite to lifting economic sanctions.”

The North warned on Friday that it could restart development of its nuclear program if Washington does not drop its campaign of “maximum pressure” and sanctions.

Despite friction between the US and the North, South Korea has improved relations with its neighbor in recent months.

In their latest confidence-building measure, Seoul and Pyongyang began a survey of a waterway along their western border on Monday to jointly use the estuaries of the Han and Imjin rivers for the first time since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Seoul deployed six ships for the joint survey that uses an acoustic program to measure the depth of water for information on safe navigation through the waterway.

The 20 members of the survey team from both sides of the border, including military and maritime government officials and waterway experts, carry no weapons and are banned from doing any provocative acts during the joint survey.

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