US, South Korea could scale back joint drills: Esper
US military exercises with South Korea could be scaled back to aid diplomacy with the nuclear-armed North, Defense Secretary Mark Esper signaled on his way to Seoul, as Pyongyang said it was running out of patience.
According to Press TV, the North has long protested joint military drills, which it condemns as preparations for invasion, and has set Washington an end-of-year deadline to come up with a new offer in deadlocked negotiations on its weapons programs.
The US and South Korea last year cancelled several joint drills in the wake of the Singapore summit between President Donald Trump and the North's leader Kim Jong Un, but are due to carry out a combined air exercise next month.
"We will adjust our exercise posture either more or less depending on what diplomacy may require," Esper told reporters on board his plane to Seoul, where he starts an Asian tour Thursday.
The possible downsizing of the joint drills should not be seen as a "concession" to Pyongyang, he said, "but as a means to keep the door open to diplomacy".
"I'm all for diplomacy first," he added.
His comments came after Pyongyang reiterated its demands for the combined exercise to be scrapped.
"The US is not accepting with due consideration the year-end time limit that we set out of great patience and magnanimity," a spokesman for the State Affairs Commission (SAC) said in a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
The SAC is the North's top governing body and it is unusual for it to issue such declarations.
Holding the drills would be an "undisguised breach" of the Singapore summit declaration, it said, adding: "Betrayal is only what we feel from the US side."