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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press A South Korean soldier walks on Unification Bridge, which leads to the demilitarized zone, earlier today near the border village of Panmunjom in Paju, South Korea.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018 1:00 am

N. Korea nixes South talks

Abrupt move raises question whether Trump, Kim will meet

Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea early today canceled a high-level meeting with South Korea and threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over military exercises between Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang has long claimed are invasion rehearsals.

The surprise declaration appears 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.

It's still unclear, however, whether the North intends to scuttle all diplomacy or merely wants to gain leverage ahead of the planned June 12 talks between Kim and Trump.

The statement by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency was released hours before the two Koreas were to meet at a border village to discuss how to implement their leaders' recent agreements to reduce military tensions along their heavily fortified border and improve their overall ties.

It called the two-week Max Thunder drills, which began Monday and reportedly include about 100 aircraft, an “intended military provocation” and an “apparent challenge” to an April summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, when the leaders met on their border in their countries' third summit talks since their formal division in 1948.

“The United States must carefully contemplate the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit amid the provocative military ruckus that it's causing with South Korean authorities,” the North said. “We'll keenly monitor how the United States and South Korean authorities will react.”

Annual military drills between Washington and Seoul have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, and analysts have wondered whether their continuation would hurt the detente that, since an outreach by Kim in January, has replaced the insults and threats of war. Earlier – and much larger – springtime drills, which Washington and Seoul toned down, went off without the North's typically fiery condemnation or accompanying weapons tests.

In Washington, the State Department emphasized that Kim had previously indicated he understood the need and purpose of the U.S. continuing its long-planned exercises with South Korea. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. 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.

Washington and Seoul delayed an earlier round of drills in the spring because of the North-South diplomacy surrounding February's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the South, which saw Kim send his sister to the opening ceremonies.

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 stabilizes, according to the South Korean government.

On Tuesday, South Korea's military said North Korea was moving ahead with plans to close its nuclear test site next week, an assessment backed by U.S. researchers who say satellite images show the North has begun dismantling facilities.

The site's closure was set to come before the Kim-Trump summit, which had been shaping up as a crucial moment in the decades-long push to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North, which is closing in on the ability to viably target the mainland United States with its long-range nuclear-armed missiles.

North Korea also has a long history of launching provocations or scrapping deals with Seoul and Washington at the last minute.

In 2013, North Korea abruptly canceled reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War just days before they were held to protest what it called rising animosities ahead of joint drills between Seoul and Washington. A year earlier in 2012, the North conducted a prohibited long-range rocket launch weeks after it agreed to suspend weapons tests in return for food assistance.