U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (L) did not rule out resuming military exercises on the Korean Peninsula on Thursday. File Photo by Ron Sachs/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 3 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper's suggestion the United States could restart joint exercises with South Korea is raising speculation in Seoul that drills could resume in the spring following a period of absence.
Esper, who appeared on MSNBC on Thursday, told the network the United States is "prepared to fight, if need be."
The U.S. defense chief said the Trump administration "did scale back exercises, because we wanted to keep the door open" to talks.
"I think that's the right way to proceed," Esper said. "But in no shape or form did it affect our fundamental way to fight and win against North Korea."
On Fox News, Esper had urged Kim Jong Un to exercise restraint and to pursue a political agreement with the United States.
"We are on that path. We want to remain on that path, and we would obviously urge Kim Jong Un and his leadership team to sit back down at the negotiation table to do that," Esper said.
North Korea did not test nuclear weapons in 2019, but the regime did violate a moratorium on testing with short-range missiles.
A pro-Pyongyang newspaper based in Japan warned the United States on Friday.
The Choson Sinbo, a publication of North Korea's de facto embassy in Japan, said a U.S. delay on an agreement with Pyongyang would "only make North Korea stronger."
"We would never forgive the United States for exploiting U.S.-North Korea dialogue for impure purposes."
North Korea has previously condemned U.S.-South Korea exercises as preparations for a potential invasion. The possibility exercises could restart in the spring could be met with more serious provocations, according to a Japanese press report on Friday.
The Yomiuri Shimbun reported the North could respond with nuclear weapons tests or a test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The report also said Kim Jong Un could visit Seoul ahead of April general elections in the South, in the event of eased sanctions.
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Mark Esper as U.S. secretary of state.