SEOUL, (Reuters) – North Korea threw next month’s unprecedented summit between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump into doubt yesterday, threatening weeks of diplomatic progress by saying it may reconsider if Washington insists on pursuing a one-sided denuclearisation deal.
The North’s official KCNA news agency said earlier Pyongyang had called off high-level talks with Seoul in the first sign of trouble in what had been warming ties.
Citing first vice-minister of foreign affairs Kim Kye Gwan, KCNA later said the fate of the US-North Korea summit, as well as bilateral relations, “would be clear” if Washington spoke of a “Libya-style” denuclearisation for the North.
“If the US is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-US summit,” Kim Kye Gwan said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Kim specifically criticised US national security adviser John Bolton, who has called for North Korea to quickly give up its nuclear arsenal in a deal that mirrors Libya’s abandonment of its weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea previously clashed with Bolton when he worked under the Bush administration, calling him “human scum” and a “bloodsucker”.
Any cancellation of the June 12 summit in Singapore, the first meeting between a serving US president and a North Korean leader, would deal a major blow to Trump’s efforts to score the biggest diplomatic achievement of his presidency.
Trump has raised expectations for a successful meeting even as many analysts have been sceptical of the chances of bridging the gap due to questions about North Korea’s willingness to give up a nuclear arsenal that it says can hit the United States.
The KCNA report called the air drills a “provocation” that went against the trend of warming 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,” KCNA said, referring to a joint statement from an April 27 inter-Korea summit.
“The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-US summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities,” KCNA said.
A Trump-Kim summit until recently had looked impossible given the insults and threats the two leaders exchanged last year over North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States.
“Kim Jong Un had said previously he understands the need and the utility of the US and the Republic of Korea continuing in its joint exercises,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the US would examine the North Korean statement “and continue to coordinate closely with our allies”.
South Korea’s National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong said after meeting Kim in early March that the North Korean leader understood that “routine” joint military exercises between South Korea and the US would continue in spite of warming ties.
That was widely considered to be a major North Korea concession, although Pyongyang never publicly withdrew its long-standing demand for an end to the drills.
Kim’s latest move could be aimed at testing Trump’s willingness to make concessions ahead of the summit, which is due to be preceded by a visit to Washington next week by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
A US government expert on North Korea said Kim may also be trying to gauge whether Trump is willing to walk away from the meeting that has prompted the president’s supporters to suggest he deserves to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Any acquiescence by Trump to a North Korean demand for a halt to joint drills would likely undermine South Korean and Japanese trust in his commitment to their security. Kim has also shown a desire to win international approval for his diplomatic outreach, and any sign that he is sabotaging the talks could damage this effort.
KCNA said North Korea was suspending a ministerial-level North-South meeting, which had been due to be held yesterday to focus on plans to implement the inter-Korea summit declaration, including promises to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War and pursue “complete denuclearisation”.
South Korea said the North’s decision to unilaterally postpone the talks was “regrettable”.
“Such action of the North is inconsistent with the fundamental spirit and purpose of the Panmunjeom Declaration agreed by the South and North leaders on April 27,” the South’s Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun said.
The Pentagon said the May 14-25 “Max Thunder” exercises were routine and defensive in nature. A spokesman said the exercises would take place at Gwangju air base and would be “at a scale similar to that of the previous years”.