North Korea abruptly canceled talks with South Korea and warned the U.S. to “think twice” about the fate of President Donald Trump’s planned meeting with Kim Jong Un next month, tamping down hopes of a breakthrough at the historic summit.
North Korea told South Korean authorities that it was “indefinitely” suspending minister-level talks planned for Wednesday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said. North Korea cited the annual South Korean-U.S. “Max Thunder” air defense drills in its decision to call off the meeting, which was intended to discuss implementing last month’s peace declaration with South Korea.
“The U.S. will have to think twice about the fate of the DPRK-U.S. summit now on high agenda before a provocative military racket against the DPRK in league with the south Korean authorities,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday, using an abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name. “We will closely watch the ensuing behavior of the U.S. and the South Korean authorities.”
The move undercuts some of the optimism after Kim agreed to discuss his nuclear weapons program in a first-of-its-kind summit with Trump on June 12 in Singapore. North Korea has in recent weeks issued repeated complaints about Trump administration efforts to maintain its “maximum pressure” campaign against the regime in the run up to the meeting.
“This is standard North Korea behavior. They want to remind everyone that they are calling the shots and testing Washington and Seoul to see how eager they are,” said Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS and a former special assistant to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. But Cossa said he didn’t expect the dust-up “to be a show stopper.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that officials “are aware” of North Korea’s remarks. “The United States will look at what North Korea has said independently, and continue to coordinate closely with our allies,” she said.
While North Korea has long railed against U.S.-led military drills as a rehearsal for war, Kim has in recent weeks signaled that he would be willing to tolerate such exercises. Wednesday’s statement suggested Kim might be seeking a gesture similar to the U.S.’s decision to delay separate joint drills before the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
The KCNA statement specifically cited the deployment of B-52 bombers, which are capable of carrying nuclear bombs, and F-22 fighter jets as evidence of threatening behavior by the U.S.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Wednesday that the U.S. won’t send B-52 bombers for the military drills. The exercises will include about 100 aircraft, including F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, the report said, citing unidentified officials with South Korea’s military and government.
Colonel Rob Manning, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement that the exercises now underway are annual drills aimed at maintaining “a foundation of military readiness.” He said the drills’ defensive nature “has been clear for many decades and has not changed.”
U.S. officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- who has met Kim twice in recent months -- have said they believe North Korea’s new willingness to talk is genuine, and the result of a tighter sanctions regime that has inflicted new pain on the isolated country’s economy. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said planning for the Singapore summit continues and that the U.S. hasn’t received any notification about potential hurdles.
The summit in Singapore is shaping up to be one of the biggest foreign policy tests of the Trump administration, coming after a year in which the two countries’ leaders traded personal insults and threats of war as North Korea ramped up its tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs.
The U.S. has said it will demand “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula before granting economic concessions to Pyongyang. While Kim has already announced plans to shutter the Punggye-ri testing ground in the country’s mountainous northeast, many foreign policy experts are skeptical he will ever fully relinquish his nuclear capabilities.
Kim surprised U.S. officials last week when he agreed to release three Korean-Americans detained in the country. Pompeo flew to Pyongyang on a secret trip to pick them up. Photographs showed him and Kim smiling as they shook hands just before the release of the prisoners who were greeted by Trump on their arrival in the U.S.
Van Jackson, a strategy fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and a former U.S. Department of Defense adviser, said Kim was either trying to secure early concessions from the Trump administration or manage domestic apprehension about rapprochement with the U.S.
“If the alliance exercises proceed, that’s an indication that the alliance isn’t going to bend for North Korea and ‘maximum pressure’ will likely stay in place for the foreseeable future,” Jackson said. “If the alliance curtails its exercises in the name of diplomatic engagement, then North Korea knows it’s got a softer target -- more room to press for greater demands.”