WASHINGTON - In a possible opening for diplomacy, the Trump administration on Thursday agreed to delay joint military exercises with South Korea until after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The decision could help reduce tensions as the Koreas consider holding their first direct talks in two years, even though Defense Secretary Jim Mattis insisted the delay was a practical necessity to accommodate the Olympics, not a political gesture.
Mattis said the drill would be conducted sometime after the Winter Paralympics, which will be held March 8-18 following the Feb. 9-25 Olympic Games.
"For us, it's a practical matter," Mattis told journalists in an impromptu encounter at the Pentagon, citing the wide array of logistics and transportation support required to conduct the Olympics, some of which would otherwise be tied up with military exercises.
The White House said President Donald Trump approved the postponement in consultation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. It said the delay will allow U.S. and South Korean forces to "focus on ensuring the security of the games."
The agreement delays a set of annual military exercises known as Foal Eagle, which normally are held between February and April. Foal Eagle is a series of exercises designed to test the readiness of the two countries' militaries. North Korea routinely objects to such maneuvers as a rehearsal for an invasion, and there had been fears that tensions could interfere with the Games occurring about 50 miles south of the heavily militarized border.
For the first time in months, high-level diplomatic action between North and South is taking place. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently reopened a key cross-border communication channel with South Korea that had been dormant since February 2016, and the neighbors are exploring the possibility of a formal dialogue.
Asked whether delaying the military maneuvers was a quid pro quo in response to Kim's reopening of cross-border communications, Mattis said, "No. Those talks are clearly the result of the amount of international pressure [on North Korea], and they are a way for North Korea to start talking while keeping it contained to a benign issue."
Later he said, "In terms of whether it's a one-off [gesture] from him or a real olive branch, I don't know." He said there can be little doubt that international pressure, including sanctions ordered by the U.N. Security Council, is having some effect on Kim's calculations.
North Korea also has expressed interest in sending a delegation to participate in the Olympics.
Although the decision was announced Thursday, the idea of delaying the military exercises had been under quiet discussion for weeks. U.S. officials had understood the South Korean military would be heavily committed to providing logistical support for the Games.
Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates for nuclear disarmament, wrote in a tweet that the delay is a welcome move to lessen hostilities after Trump's latest tweets about the size of his nuclear "button." Cirincione wrote: "Korean leaders have convinced him to take a step back from the brink."
In a tweet early Thursday, Trump claimed his tough stance on nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula is helping push North Korea and South Korea to talk, although that assertion is in conflict with some of Trump's own statements. Last year, he ridiculed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for talking about negotiations with the North.
Trump tweeted on Thursday, "Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn't firm, strong and willing to commit our total 'might' against the North."
Earlier this week, Trump seemed open to the possibility of an inter-Korean dialogue after Kim made a rare overture toward South Korea in a New Year's address. But Trump's ambassador to the United Nations insisted that talks won't be meaningful unless the North is getting rid of its nuclear weapons.
The overture about talks came after Trump and Kim traded more bellicose claims about their nuclear weapons.
In his New Year's address, Kim repeated fiery nuclear threats against the U.S. Kim said he has a "nuclear button" on his office desk and warned that "the whole territory of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear strike."
Trump mocked that assertion Tuesday evening, tweeting: "Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"