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North Korea threatens to cancel U.S. summit over military drills

UPDATED: Tue., May 15, 2018, 8:35 p.m.

In this April 27, 2018 photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands after signing on a joint statement at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. (Associated Press)
In this April 27, 2018 photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands after signing on a joint statement at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. (Associated Press)

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea on Wednesday canceled a high-level meeting with South Korea and threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between 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 by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency 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.

It 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 summit talks since their formal division in 1948. KCNA said the U.S. aircraft mobilized for the drills include nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and stealth F-22 fighter jets, two of the U.S. military assets it has previously said are aimed at launching nuclear strikes on the North.

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the drills will go on as planned.

“The United States must carefully contemplate the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. 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.”

North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, later released a separate statement saying Pyongyang has no interest in a summit with Washington if it’s going to be a “one-sided” affair where it’s pressured to give up its nukes.

He criticized recent comments by Trump’s top security adviser John Bolton and other U.S. officials who have been talking about how the North should follow the “Libyan model” of nuclear disarmament and provide a “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement.” He also took issue with U.S. views that the North should also fully relinquish its biological and chemical weapons.

“We will appropriately respond to the Trump administration if it approaches the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting with a truthful intent to improve relations,” Kim said. “But we are no longer interested in a negotiation that will be all about driving us into a corner and making a one-sided demand for us to give up our nukes and this would force us to reconsider whether we would accept the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting.”

Some analysts say bringing up Libya, which dismantled its rudimentary nuclear program in the 2000s in exchange for sanctions relief, would risk derailing any progress in negotiations with the North.

Kim Jong Un took power weeks after former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s gruesome death at the hands of rebel forces amid a popular uprising in October 2011. The North has frequently used Gadhafi’s death to justify its own nuclear development in the face of perceived U.S. threats.

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.

South Korean called North Korea’s move “regrettable” and demanded a quick return to talks.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry spokesman Baek Tae-hyun said the North’s decision goes against the spirit of last month’s inter-Korean summit, where the Koreas’ leaders issued a vague vow on the “complete denuclearization” on the Korean Peninsula and pledged permanent peace between the rivals. He didn’t provide a straightforward answer on whether Seoul sees the North’s talks cancellation as potentially affecting the meeting between Trump and Kim.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department emphasized that Kim had previously indicated he understood the need and purpose of the U.S. continuing its long-planned exercises with South Korea. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

The North’s statement Wednesday comes amid a slew of surprising moves in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, South Korea’s military said North Korea was moving ahead with plans to close its nuclear test site next week, an assessment backed by U.S. researchers who say satellite images show the North has begun dismantling facilities at the site.

The site’s closure was set to come before the Kim-Trump summit, which had been shaping up as a crucial moment in the decades-long push to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North, which is closing in on the ability to viably target the mainland United States with its long-range nuclear-armed missiles.

Despite the North’s moves, some experts were skeptical about whether Kim would completely give up a nuclear program that he had pushed so hard to build. Kim has expressed his intention to negotiate over his weapons, but he still uses a long-contentious term, “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The North previously has used this phrase when demanding that the United States pull its 28,500 troops out of South Korea and withdraw its so-called “nuclear umbrella” security guarantee to South Korea and Japan as a condition for its nuclear disarmament.

Wednesday’s threat could also be targeted at showing a domestic audience that Kim is willing to stand up to Washington. Kim has repeatedly told his people that his nukes are a “powerful treasured sword” that can smash U.S. hostility.

North Korea also has a long history of launching provocations or scrapping deals with Seoul and Washington at the last minute.

In 2013, North Korea abruptly cancelled reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War just days before they were held to protest what it called rising animosities ahead of joint drills between Seoul and Washington. A year earlier in 2012, the North conducted a prohibited long-range rocket launch weeks after it agreed to suspend weapons tests in return for food assistance.