North Korea cancels high-level meeting with officials from Seoul
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea canceled a high-level meeting with the South Wednesday and threatened to do the same with its landmark summit with the United States next month in a major setback for the recent diplomatic offensive over its nuclear weapons program.
The pre-dawn declaration came hours before senior officials from Seoul and Pyongyang were to meet to hash out details on implementing the agreement reached by their leaders at an inter-Korean summit last month.
It took the Americans and the South Koreans by surprise, reversing months of unusually positive outreach by the reclusive nation that raised hopes for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Analysts said it was unclear if the warning by the state-run news agency was a serious threat by the North to derail the current bout of diplomacy or an effort to seek leverage ahead of its June 12 summit with President Donald Trump in Singpore.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency lashed out at joint U.S.-South Korean War games underway on the divided peninsula.
KCNA called the annual air exercises known as Max Thunder an “undisguised challenge” to the Panmunjom Declaration, as the inter-Korean summit agreement is known.
“The north and south solemnly declared in the declaration that a new era was ushered in … and the U.S. also fully supported it,” KCNA said, accusing the allies of violating the spirit of the deal “even before the ink” was dry.
It then warned Washington "to think twice about the fate of the (North Korean)-U.S. summit” before conducting “a provocative military racket against (the North) in league with the south Korean authorities.”
“We will closely watch the ensuing behavior of the U.S. and the South Korean authorities,” it added.
North Korea usually objects to the annual war games, which it considers a dress rehearsal for an invasion.
Washington and Seoul agreed to postpone recent springtime drills known as Foal Eagle/Key Resolve until after the Feb. 9-25 Olympics to facilitate the start of talks with the North.
They resumed the exercises after the Winter Games, but the State Department said that Kim Jong Un had indicated the North understood that would happen because the drills were long planned.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington 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," she said.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, insisted the exercises are defensive in nature.
“These defensive exercises are part of the (South Korean)-U.S. alliance’s routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness,” spokesman Col. Rob Manning said in a statement.
"The defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed," he said.
North Korea’s statement was a reminder of the fragility of the diplomatic process that began earlier this year after months of saber-rattling and threats of nuclear war by Trump and Kim.
North Korea also test-fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last year.
Many observers have expressed skepticism that it is seriously willing to give up its nuclear weapons, which is Trump’s main demand.
John Delury, a professor of international relations at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in should be “cool-headed.”
He noted that Kim has made a series of gestures, including suspending ICBM and nuclear tests and beginning to dismantle the country’s nuclear test site.
The North also released three American detainees during a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month.
“KJU has made a series of small but concrete & meaningful goodwill gestures,” Delury wrote on Twitter. “KJU could feel the need for MJI-DJT to do him a solid.”