North Korea on Wednesday canceled a high-level meeting with South Korea and threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over military exercises between Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang has long claimed are invasion rehearsals.
The surprise declaration, which came in a pre-dawn dispatch in North Korea’s state media, appears to cool what had been an unusual flurry of outreach from a country that last year conducted a provocative series of weapons tests that had many fearing the region was on the edge of war. It’s still unclear, however, whether the North intends to scuttle all diplomacy or merely wants to gain leverage ahead of the planned June 12 talks between Kim and Trump.
The statement was released hours before the two Koreas were to meet at a border village to discuss how to implement their leaders’ recent agreements to reduce military tensions along their heavily fortified border and improve their overall ties.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency called the two-week Max Thunder drills, which began Monday and reportedly include about 100 aircraft, an “intended military provocation” and an “apparent challenge” to an April summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, when the leaders met on their border in their countries’ third-ever summit talks since their 1948 division.
“The United States must carefully contemplate the fate of the planned North Korea-US summit amid the provocative military ruckus that it’s causing with South Korean authorities,” the North said Wednesday.
“We’ll keenly monitor how the United States and South Korean authorities will react.”
History of joint military drills
Annual military drills between Washington and Seoul have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, and analysts have wondered whether their continuation would hurt the detente that, since an outreach by Kim in January, has replaced the insults and threats of war. Earlier - and much larger - springtime drills, which Washington and Seoul toned down, went off without the North’s typically fiery condemnation or accompanying weapons tests.
In Washington, the US State Department emphasized that Kim had previously indicated he understood the need and purpose of the US continuing its long-planned exercises with South Korea. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US had not heard anything directly from Pyongyang or Seoul that would change that.
“We will continue to go ahead and plan the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un,” Nauert said.
Army Col. Rob Manning said this current exercise is part of the US and South Korea’s “routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness.” Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said the purpose of Max Thunder and exercise Foal Eagle - another training event - is to enhance the two nations’ abilities to operate together to defend South Korea.
“The defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed,” said Manning.
Washington and Seoul delayed an earlier round of drills in the spring because of the North-South diplomacy surrounding February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the South, which saw Kim send his sister to the opening ceremonies.
Kim told visiting South Korean officials in March that he “understands” the drills would take place and expressed hope that they’ll be modified once the situation on the peninsula stabilizes, according to the South Korean government.
South Korea didn’t immediately make any official response to the North’s announcement.