North Korea suspended high-level talks with South Korea scheduled for Wednesday due to U.S.-South Korean military exercises and warned that a summit next month between its leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump could be in jeopardy.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency called the U.S.-South Korean “Max Thunder” air combat drills, which it said involved U.S. stealth fighters and B-52 bombers, a “provocation” that went against the trend of warming North-South 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,” Yonhap quoted KCNA as saying.
“The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities.”
Trump and Kim have been due to meet in Singapore on June 12 for a summit that until recently had looked impossible given the insults and threats the two leaders exchanged over the past year as tension rose over North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States.
Heather Nauert, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said it had no information from North Korea about threat to cancel the summit and that it continued to plan for that meeting.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Any cancellation of the summit, the first meeting between U.S. and North Korean leaders, would deal a major blow to Trump’s efforts to score the biggest diplomatic achievement of his presidency.
He has raised expectations for a successful meeting even as many analysts have been skeptical of the chances of bridging the gap due to questions about North Korea’s willingness to give up a nuclear arsenal that now threatens the United States.
Wednesday’s meeting was due to focus on plans to implement a declaration that emerged from an April 27 inter-Korea summit in the border village of Panmunjom, including promises to formally end the Korean War and pursue “complete denuclearization,” the South’s unification ministry, which handles ties with the North, said on Tuesday.
A Pentagon spokesman confirmed the “Max Thunder” exercises, an annual drill involving the U.S. and South Korean air forces. He did not immediately provide further details.
Last year, Max Thunder involved about 1,500 U.S. and South Korean personnel flying aircraft including F-16 fighter jets, according to a U.S. Air Force website.
South Korea’s National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong said in early March, after meeting Kim, that the North Korean leader understood that “routine” joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States would continue in spite of a warming of ties.
This was widely considered to be a major North Korea concession, though Pyongyang never publicly withdrew its long-standing demand for an end to joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday the United States would agree to lift sanctions on North Korea if it agreed to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program, a move that would create economic prosperity that “will rival” that of South Korea.
Last month, Pompeo became the first serving U.S. official to meet North Korean leader Kim, when he visited Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for the meeting with Trump. He returned again to North Korea this month for a second meeting, after which Kim agreed to the release of three American prisoners.
A South Korean presidential adviser warned on Tuesday that an incremental North Korean approach to denuclearization at the June 12 summit would not be acceptable to Trump or the South Korean public.
North Korea has said it will dismantle its nuclear bomb test site some time between May 23 and May 25 in order to uphold its pledge to cease tests, its state media reported on Saturday, a month ahead of a planned North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore.
North Korea has invited international media to witness the destruction of the site, but not technical inspectors, leaving disarmament experts and nuclear scientists wondering how effective the plan is – and whether it will be safe.
Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Tim Ahmann, Matt Spetalnick and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writng by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Alistair Bell