SEOUL—North Korea abruptly called off high-level talks scheduled with Seoul early on Wednesday morning, citing provocation from the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the south as their reason for the indefinite delay in dialogue.
However, South Korean official Cheong Wa Dae said the south is working to determine the underlying reason for North Korea’s announcement, reported Yonhap News Agency.
A report on North Korea’s official KCNA angrily attacked the “Max Thunder” air combat drills, which it said involved U.S. stealth fighters and B-52 bombers, and appeared to mark a break from the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration and the months of warming ties between North and South Korea and between Pyongyang and Washington.
The “Max Thunder” drills, aimed at “boosting the capability of pilots”, would go on as planned and were not aimed at attacking a third party, the South’s defence ministry said.
The KCNA report called the air drills a “provocation” that went against the trend of warming ties.
“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,” KCNA said, in what some security experts say could be an attempt by the communist state to gain some higher ground before the summit, reported Yonhap.
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 United States 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 Jong Un had said previously that he understands the need and the utility of the United States and the Republic of Korea continuing in its joint exercises,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing.
“We have not heard anything from that government or the government of South Korea to indicate that we would not continue conducting these exercises or that we would not continue planning for our meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un next month,” she said.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the United States would examine the North Korean statement “and continue to coordinate closely with our allies”.
Hardliners within the North Korean Regime?
KCNA said North Korea was suspending a ministerial-level North-South meeting, which had been due to be held on Wednesday to focus on plans to implement the inter-Korea summit declaration, including promises to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War and pursue “complete denuclearization.”
It said: “The U.S. should make efforts to create an atmosphere for mutual respect and confidence before dialogue, not resorting to a foolish farce that may reverse the good trend created with much effort.”
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.”
South Korea’s unification ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun 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,” Baik said.
“North Korea’s decision to unilaterally postpone high-level talks between the two Koreas citing an annual joint air drill between South Korea and the United States is not in line with the spirit of the Panmunjom Declaration and is regrettable.”
South Korea said it is working to seek further clarification from North Korea about the reason for its cancellation.
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.
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 he said would create economic prosperity that would rival that of South Korea.
North Korea said on Saturday it would dismantle its nuclear bomb test site some time between May 23 and May 25 to uphold its pledge to cease tests.
Joshua Pollack, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said Pyongyang appeared irritated by the U.S. administration’s vow to maintain sanctions in spite of North Korean concessions.
“The North Koreans want a change in tone from the U.S., and at least so far, they’re not hearing one,” he said.
According to a report from The Chosun Ilbo, some with an understanding of North Korean society said it is possible that regime hardliners may be acting to disrupt the diplomatic negotiations that they see as a threat to the Kim dynasty.
The South Korean media also reported that North Korea’s propaganda paper Rodong Sinmun Daily published a front-page editorial on May 14 imploring its readers to continue the revolutionary struggle and strive for self-reliance.
“In today’s world, nothing is sillier than trying to achieve prosperity by depending on others for help,” the editorial read, seemingly referring to the promise of economic aid from the United States in return for complete denuclearization by the regime.
The report said that Kim had already been making announcements about the possible economic relief to the North Korean people.
By Josh Smith. Additional reporting by NTD staff.