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US and South Korea to stage low-key military drills ahead of summits with North

North Korea considers the exercises an invasion rehearsal and often conducts weapons tests in protest.

Annual US-South Korean military drills that infuriate North Korea will begin on April 1, the allies have said.

However, the drills are likely to be more low-key than past years ahead of two highly anticipated summits among the countries’ leaders.

This year’s drills were postponed during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, which saw rare co-operative steps between the rival Korean nations after months of confrontation over the North’s weapons programmes.

North Korea considers the exercises an invasion rehearsal and often conducts weapons tests in protest.

After post-Olympics talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean officials said Mr Kim indicated he would accept the drills.

Mr Kim also offered to meet personally with US President Donald Trump to discuss giving up his nuclear weapons on unspecified terms, and Mr Trump quickly agreed to meet Mr Kim by the end of May.

Mr Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are to meet separately in late April.

In a brief statement, the Pentagon said defence secretary Jim Mattis and his South Korean counterpart, Song Young-moo, agreed to go forward with the two sets of exercises, known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, “at a scale similar to” that of previous years.

North Korea has been notified of the schedule “as well as the defensive nature” of the exercises, the Pentagon said.

South Korea’s defence ministry released a near-identical statement.

The exercises begin with Foal Eagle, a field training drill that will last about four weeks, compared with its typical two-month run.

The other drill, known as Key Resolve, is a computer-simulated command post exercise and is scheduled to start around the middle of April for a usual two-week run, a South Korean official said.

“These are low-key drills. Now it’s a dialogue mode so they are trying to keep pace with that,” said Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

The planned summit meetings have raised hopes for a potential breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear crisis. But many experts say tensions will flare again if the summits fail to make any progress and leave the nuclear issue with few diplomatic options.

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