North Korea threatens to cancel Trump-Kim summit over drills

SEOUL (AP) – North Korea yesterday threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between its leader, Kim Jong-un, and US President Donald Trump, saying it has no interest in a “one-sided” affair meant to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons.

The warning by North Korea’s first vice foreign minister came hours after the country abruptly cancelled a high-level meeting with South Korea to protest US-South Korean military exercises that Pyongyang long claimed were invasion rehearsals.

The surprise moves appeared 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. Analysts said it was unlikely that North Korea intends to scuttle all diplomacy. More likely, they said, is that Pyongyang wants to gain leverage ahead of the talks between Kim and Trump, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

“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-US summit meeting,” First Vice Foreign Minister, Kim Kye-gwan, said in a statement carried by state media.

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

Yesterday, senior officials from the two Koreas were to sit down at a border village to discuss how to implement their leaders’ recent agreements to reduce military tensions along their heavily fortified border and improve overall ties. But hours before the meeting was to start, the North informed the South that it would “indefinitely suspend” the talks, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.

A South Korean military vehicle crosses Unification Bridge, which leads to the demilitarised zone, near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea, yesterday. – AP

In a pre-dawn dispatch, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, 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 last month’s summit between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, when the leaders met at the border in their countries’ third summit talks since their formal division in 1948.

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for inter-Korean affairs, called North Korea’s move “regrettable” and urged a quick return to talks. The Defence Ministry said the drills with the United States would go on as planned.

Annual military drills between Washington and Seoul have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, and analysts wondered whether their continuation would hurt the detente that, since an outreach by Kim in January, replaced the insults and threats of war. Much larger springtime drills took place last month without the North’s typically fiery condemnation or accompanying weapons tests, though Washington and Seoul toned down those exercises.

The KCNA dispatch said the US aircraft mobilised for the drills include nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and stealth F-22 fighter jets, two of the US military assets it previously said were aimed at launching nuclear strikes on the North. Seoul said F-22s were involved in the drills, but did not confirm whether B-52s were taking part.

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 stabilises, according to the South Korean government.

Despite Kim’s outreach, some experts were sceptical about whether he would completely give up a nuclear programme that he pushed so hard to build. The North previously vowed to continue nuclear development unless the United States pulled its 28,500 troops out of South Korea and withdrew its so-called “nuclear umbrella” security guarantee to South Korea and Japan as a condition for its nuclear disarmament.

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