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US and South Korea agree to delay Foal Eagle exercise until after Olympics

The United States and South Korea agreed to delay an annual military exercise until after the upcoming Winter Olympics to avoid possible tensions with North Korea.

Seoul’s Yonhap news reported that South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed Thursday to delay the Foal Eagle drills until after the Pyeongchang Olympics to prevent “provocation” from Pyongyang during the games.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said last week there were no plans to delay the exercises, which often provoke North Korea. The U.S. maintains that the regular drills are necessary to maintain readiness.

“The rescheduling of exercises will be, as always, subject to both countries. If a pause is, I’m pausing them for a period of time because of a diplomatic issue or something, no, I don’t anticipate that right now,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.

The anual Foal Eagle exercise is a combined U.S.-Republic of Korea field training exercise, one of the largest conducted every year. In 2016, North Korea protested the drills, saying they were a rehearsal for a preemptive strike. The exercise included 290,000 South Korean and 15,000 U.S. troops, the largest ever.

The 2017 iteration of Foal Eagle included 28,000 U.S. troops already stationed in South Korea along with 3,000 who deployed to join the exercise.

Easing tensions on the Korean peninsula?

Pyongyang carried out a number of nuclear and ballistic missile tests in 2017, prompting an escalating war of words between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump.

But Thursday’s report comes a day after the two Koreas reopened a cross-border hotline that had been closed for over a year, after South Korea proposed high-level talks with its neighbor.

Kim had called for better relations with Seoul during his New Year address, and expressed an interest in North Korean athletes participating in the Pyeongchang games.

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