North Korea threw into question next month’s unprecedented summit between Kim Jong Un and US president Donald Trump, denouncing on Wednesday US-South Korean military exercises as a provocation and calling off high-level talks with Seoul.
A report on North Korea’s official KCNA angrily attacked the ‘Max Thunder’ air combat drills, which it said involved US stealth fighters and B-52 bombers, and appeared to mark a break in months of warming ties between North and South Korea and between Pyongyang and Washington.
The ‘Max Thunder’ drills, aimed at ‘boosting the capability of pilots’, would go on as planned and were not aimed at attacking a third party, the South’s defence ministry said.
Any cancellation of the June 12 summit in Singapore, the first meeting between a serving US president and a North Korean leader, would deal a major blow to Trump’s efforts to score the biggest diplomatic achievement of his presidency.
Trump has raised expectations for a successful meeting even as many analysts have been sceptical of the chances of bridging the gap due to questions about North Korea’s willingness to give up a nuclear arsenal that it says can hit the United States.
The KCNA report called the air drills a ‘provocation’ that went against the trend of warming ties.
‘This exercise, targeting us, which is being carried out across South Korea, is a flagrant challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration and an intentional military provocation running counter to the positive political development on the Korean Peninsula,’ KCNA said, referring to a joint statement from an April 27 inter-Korea summit.
‘The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-US summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities,’ KCNA said.
A Trump-Kim summit until recently had looked impossible given the insults and threats the two leaders exchanged last year over North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States.
‘Kim Jong Un had said previously that he understands the need and the utility of the United States and the Republic of Korea continuing in its joint exercises,’ US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing.
‘We have not heard anything from that government or the government of South Korea to indicate that we would not continue conducting these exercises or that we would not continue planning for our meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un next month,’ she said.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the United States would examine the North Korean statement ‘and continue to coordinate closely with our allies’.
South Korea’s National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong said after meeting Kim in early March that the North Korean leader understood that ‘routine’ joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States would continue in spite of warming ties.
That was widely considered to be a major North Korea concession, although Pyongyang never publicly withdrew its long-standing demand for an end to the drills.
Kim’s latest move could be aimed at testing Trump’s willingness to make concessions ahead of the summit, which is due to be preceded by a visit to Washington next week by South Korean president Moon Jae-in.
A US government expert on North Korea said Kim may also be trying to gauge whether Trump is willing to walk away from the meeting that has prompted the president’s supporters to suggest he deserves to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Any acquiescence by Trump to a North Korean demand for a halt to joint drills would likely undermine South Korean and Japanese trust in his commitment to their security. Kim has also shown a desire to win international approval for his diplomatic outreach, and any sign that he is sabotaging the talks could damage this effort.
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