South Korean President Moon Jae-in on August 4 directed the defence minister to discuss the South Korea-US military drills “carefully” by taking into consideration multiple factors, a hint there could be possible changes ahead for the exercises.

According to the presidential office, Moon told Suh Wook to look at the drills with the US while “taking into account factors including the pandemic”.

Moon’s comment comes a day after the nation’s spy agency told lawmakers that North Korea could respond with military provocation, and less than a week after the North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong warned South Korea against the drills in a statement.

On August 3, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) said Pyongyang could test a submarine-launched ballistic missile, but is also willing to reveal a corresponding measure if Seoul and Washington were to suspend them, according to lawmakers who sit on the parliamentary intelligence committee.

The North, which calls the drills rehearsals of an invasion, warned the South against them on August 1, a week after the two Koreas reopened communications lines in more than a year. The South is eager to engage in dialogue with the North to build on the legacies of the 2018 inter-Korean summits.

The ruling Democratic Party has also taken a cautious stance despite the defence ministry hinting it will stage the drills as scheduled, while following precautions against the pandemic.

“The drills are important but we need to be flexible about them. We should pick up the fresh momentum for diplomacy with North Korea to work for denuclearisation,” Representative Kim Byung-kee of the Democratic Party said, citing NIS director Park Jie-won.

A behind-the-scenes discussion involving the hotlines and drills is believed to have taken place between the two Koreas, with the spy agency saying President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had exchanged letters since April to mend their strained ties.

Park said Kim Jong-un reached out to reconnect the hotlines, though the unification ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said the two neighbours made the decision together.

Meanwhile the US defence department said Seoul has not asked Washington to reconsider this year’s drills.

“You’re asking me if the South Koreans were to ask us to stop training – that hasn’t happened,” spokesperson John F Kirby told a press briefing.

Kirby echoed similar sentiments shared by the South’s defence ministry, saying: “Everything we do from a military perspective is done in close coordination with our South Korean allies. We’re together as we make these decisions.”

The drills, mainly held in spring and summer to bolster the allies’ defence readiness, are computer-based war games rather than all-out field exercises. They have been suspended since 2019 after former US President Donald Trump halted them to save costs and facilitate North Korea’s denuclearisation.

Seoul and Washington are expected to follow through on the August exercises, with their key military commanders having already convened a meeting in preparation, Seoul officials familiar with the matter said.

“Commanders came together including our chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and US military chief General Paul LaCamera,” one of the sources said, referring to the South Korean military chief. The drills will run from August 16-26, after a four-day pre-training session the previous week, they added.

Experts have said South Korea should not halt the drills because they aim to check on readiness and that North Korea is not seeking to ramp up peace efforts like Seoul.

“The exercises are primarily intended to train the staff on their roles should North Korea ever invade South Korea and to verify that the plans for defending South Korea are coherent and appear feasible,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defence analyst at the US-based policy think tank Rand Corp.

The North, which regularly holds offensive exercises and threatens to invade the South, makes the Seoul-Washington drills necessary, Bennett said, noting that Pyongyang has not offered to suspend its training.

“The Kim family regime’s political warfare strategy relies heavily on its blackmail diplomacy – the use of increased tension, threats and provocations to gain political and economic concessions,” said David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington.

Pyongyang’s warning demonstrates a unique North Korean strategy, according to Maxwell.

“It conducts provocations for specific objectives. It does not represent a policy failure on our part,” he said, noting South Korea and the US should not be held responsible for the pattern of North Korean tactics.