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US, S Korea drill ends, warmer North-South ties expected

Joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea have successfully come to an end with Pyongyang refraining from provocative actions during the period, raising expectations of improved relations on the peninsula.

SEOUL: Joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea have successfully come to an end despite nearly daily verbal threats from North Korea. But Pyongyang refrained from carrying out any provocations during the two-week period, raising expectations of improved relations on the peninsula.

While the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills were underway in South Korea, all talks between the two Koreas came to a halt. Pyongyang calls the joint military drills "gangster-like exercises", saying they are aimed at attacking the communist state. However, the US and South Korea claim the annual drills are aimed at maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula.

This year about 30,000 US service members took part with roughly 3,000 of them coming from outside South Korea. But despite its vocal opposition to the military drills, North Korea has notified of its intention to compete in the Asian Games in Incheon next month.

"It makes strong protests against the military part, but it shows flexibility on social and cultural issues. I think it is North Korea's strategy in trying to take the lead when it comes to inter-Korean ties," said Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

Following an exchange of letters with Asian Games organisers - going back and forth through the liaison office at the truce village of Panmunjom - South Korea gave the green light for 273 athletes and officials from North Korea to fly over the sensitive Yellow Sea border on the flight to Incheon, west of Seoul.

It is now also hoped North Korea will send its cheerleaders to the event, as Pyongyang earlier said it would. They were a highlight of the Asian Athletics Championships in 2005 when Pyongyang sent about 101 cheerleaders, including Ri Sol-ju who is now married to North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un.

The government of President Park Geun Hye also hopes to addresse more serious and urgent issues, like holding high-level talks to discuss the reunions for separated families during Korean Thanksgiving - which falls on the second week of September.

Analysts say face-to-face negotiations are now very likely to resume since the drills have ended.

“North Korea has already decided to attend the Asian Games, and South Korea seems to want to actively pursue a new relationship with the North. And so I believe it's very likely that inter-Korean ties will head towards communicating after the Ulchi drills,” said Prof Kim.

Seoul has proposed talks but is yet to receive a response. 

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