War Games Canceled In Korea Peace Effort

SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea and the United States on Thursday canceled joint war games in a goodwill gesture to nudge North Korea toward peace talks after a landmark gathering in New York.

The announcement that this year's Team Spirit military exercises would be called off came hours after representatives of the rival Koreas and the United States met in a plush New York hotel for a briefing designed to lead to formal peace talks for the divided Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang has bitterly denounced past Team Spirit manoeuvres, involving tens of thousands of troops from all branches of the military, as preparation for an invasion.

A South Korean Defense Ministry statement said the move was designed to build confidence and ease tensions.

North Korean diplomats left the New York briefing without making any promises to take part in four-party talks, including China, on securing a peace treaty to replace an armistice that ended the 1950 to '53 Korean War.

But U.S. officials said Pyongyang's very presence at the briefing -- after twice postponing -- was a promising sign, and there was hope North Korea would join the formal talks.

"Although North Korea gave no indication on whether it would attend the peace talks, judging from its sincere attitude, the briefing was meaningful," a South Korean Foreign Ministry statement said.

It said South Korean representatives had dangled the prospect of food aid and investment in North Korea, which is on the brink of famine and suffering economic collapse.

"We explained to North Korea the food shortage problem and business between South and North Korea could also be discussed at the four-way peace talks," the statement said.

However, Pyongyang had repeated its demand for a peace pact with the United States, bypassing the South.

The once-annual Team Spirit exercises are a major source of inter-Korean friction. Although they have not been held since 1993, a decision on whether to resume them is made each year.

"The decision to cancel Team Spirit is part of efforts by our two governments to build confidence and to create an atmosphere conducive to the reduction of tensions on the peninsula," Seoul's Defense Ministry said. It added that the decision would have no impact on the defense readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces.

The United States maintains 37,000 troops in the South to defend against any North Korean attack.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told reporters after the briefing "there were no breakthroughs, but the United States is hopeful that today's talks will lead to North Korea joining the formal four-party talks."

A senior State Department official said North Korea's attendance at the briefing in Manhattan's Hilton Hotel was a good sign. "I believe the joint briefing itself is modest progress," said the official.

"North Korean diplomats have sat down with South Korean and American diplomats to talk about the possibility of getting to peace talks, and that beats all of the alternatives."