A US Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter jet flies over an apartment complex in Gwangju, South Korea, on May 16, 2018. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters
A US Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter jet flies over an apartment complex in Gwangju, South Korea, on May 16, 2018. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters

North Korea cast doubt on Wednesday morning on whether it would attend its first ever leaders’ summit with the United States on June 12, citing the South Korea-US “Max Thunder” aerial warfare exercises.

It also took strong issue with Washington’s demands for denuclearization on the Libyan model, suggesting that these demands might also cause it to scrap the summit.

Anger over air exercise

In addition, Pyongyang canceled high-level inter-Korean talks set to take place on Wednesday, which would have started the implementation process of last month’s “Panmunjom Declaration” signed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The vice-ministerial talks, scheduled for the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom, would have been the first to be held since the April 27 inter-Korean summit.

A statement by the state-run Korean Central News Agency said the Max Thunder exercise was “a bid to make a pre-emptive air strike at the DPRK and win the air.” Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the official name for North Korea.

Max Thunder, held annually, is the largest air-warfare drill on the peninsula involving both South Korean and US assets. This year’s two-week drills started last Friday. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called the exercises “an undisguised challenge” to the Panmunjom Declaration and a “rude and wicked provocation.”

The statement took issue with B-52 strategic bombers and F-22 Raptor fighters that are reportedly taking part in this year’s drills. The former are the largest bombers in the US arsenal; the latter are among the most advanced stealth fighter-bombers deployed by the US.

“We cannot but take the step of suspending the North-South high-level talks scheduled on May 16,” the KCNA wrote. “The US will also have to think twice about the fate of the US-DPRK summit now on high agenda [sic] before a provocative military racket [sic] against the DPRK in league with South Korean authorities.”

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Surprise move

Pyongyang’s move appeared to have caught Seoul by surprise.

“It is regrettable that the North’s unilateral move to postpone the high-level inter-Korean talks, citing the annual South Korea-US air drills, does not conform with the spirit and purpose of the agreements reached between the leaders of the two countries,” the Ministry of Unification said in an statement carried by Yonhap Newswire. “The government … urges the North to come out for talks as soon as possible for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.’

South Korean envoys who visited Kim in Pyongyang early this year said they had been assured that North Korea would not complain about the annual series of allied military exercises. And indeed, Pyongyang did not take issue in its public statements with earlier exercises, Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, which took place after the Winter Olympics.

Customarily, the North’s state media lambast the spring drills, raising tensions in the region.

The prior silence may have made Wednesday morning’s sudden turnaround doubly surprising. Defense Minister Song Young-moo reportedly canceled previous appointments in order to meet with the commander of US Forces Korea, General Vincent Brooks.

The cancellation of the inter-Korean talks and the threat to the US summit are the first significant blips in the good vibes unleashed across the peninsula since Kim started his diplomatic “charm offensive” with a surprisingly conciliatory speech on January 1. Pyongyang has since halted all nuclear and missile tests, announced that it will shutter its nuclear test site, and released three US detainees.

One pundit called for calm, describing Wednesday morning’s announcement as a tactical ploy by the North that would not, in fact, endanger the highly anticipated summit with US President Donald Trump.

“We should not start panicking,” said Chris Green of International Crisis Group. “It is North Korea taking the opportunity to create leverage for itself and ensure that it maintains a strong position in future negotiations.”

Back to brinksmanship?

Just hours later, the KCNA released another statement also suggesting a possible scrapping of the summit.

In the statement, it slammed US calls for a Libyan model of unilateral denuclearization. That model has been repeatedly championed by National Security Advisor John Bolton; North Korea has made repeated historical references to it, noting the bloody end of the Gadaffi regime.

Calling Bolton’s remarks “unbridled” and “recklessly made,” the KCNA, quoted Kim Kye-gwan, vice foreign minister, as saying that Bolton’s statements were, “…a manifestation of awfully sinister move (sic) to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Iraq or Libya which had been collapsed to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”

The statement noted that Pyongyang had “…already stated our intention for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and made clear on several occasions that precondition for denuclearization is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States.”

Kim also seemed to have a shrewd idea of Trump’s heavy investment of political capital in the summit. “If President Trump follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, he will be more recorded as more tragic and unsuccessful president than his predecessors, far from his initial ambition to make unprecedented success,” the statement read.

However, it ended with a hint of a conciliatory note: “If the Trump administration takes an approach to the DPRK-US summit with sincerity for improved relations, it will receive a deserved response from us.”

An expert said that just weeks ahead of the summit, North Korea has started to play its favorite game.

“It is a brinksmanship game again: They realize Trump is invested, they think Trump is hooked; they have baited him into coming to the summit and promising complete denuclearization, but now they are lowering their offer,” said Go Myung-hyun, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “They need a plan B or a Plan C and that includes cancelling the summit.”

Go added, “I don’t think they want to…but they are prepared.”

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