Wednesday 18 July 2018

North Korea threatens to cancel US summit

A meeting between the two Koreas has also been called off.

Pyongyang has also cancelled a high-level meeting with South Korea designed to reduce border tensions (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
Pyongyang has also cancelled a high-level meeting with South Korea designed to reduce border tensions (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

By Hyung-Jin Kim and Foster Klug, Associated Press

North Korea has 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.

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 is 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 Mr Kim and Mr Trump.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang cancelled a high-level meeting with South Korea. The two Koreas were due 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 on Monday and reportedly include about 100 aircraft, an “intended military provocation” and an “apparent challenge” to an April summit between Mr 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.

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The June 12 meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is at risk of being cancelled (Lee Jin-man/AP)

“The United States must carefully contemplate the fate of the planned North Korea-US summit amid the provocative military ruckus that it is causing with South Korean authorities,” the North said on Wednesday.

“We’ll keenly monitor how the United States and South Korean authorities will react.”

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 Mr 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 emphasised that Mr 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,” Ms Nauert said.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in cross the border line at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarised Zone (Korea Summit Press Pool/AP)

Army Colonel 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”.

Col 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 Col 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 Mr Kim send his sister to the opening ceremonies.

Mr Kim told visiting South Korean officials in March that he “understands” the drills would take place and expressed hope that they will be modified once the situation on the peninsula stabilises, according to the South Korean government.

South Korea did not immediately make any official response to the North’s announcement.

The North’s statement on Wednesday comes amid a slew of surprising moves from the North 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 US 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 sceptical about whether Mr Kim would completely give up a nuclear programme that he had pushed so hard to build.

Mr Kim has expressed his intention to negotiate over his weapons, but he still uses a long-contentious term, “the denuclearisation 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 Mr Kim is willing to stand up to Washington.

Mr Kim has repeatedly told his people that his nukes are a “powerful treasured sword” that can smash US 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.

Press Association

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