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North Korea threatens to reconsider Trump summit after cancelling Seoul talks

North Korea on Wednesday cast doubt on next month's summit between leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump over joint air force drills taking place in South Korea, which it says are ruining the diplomatic mood.

The confusion created by the sudden statement underscored the risks for Trump in meeting with the 34-year-old North Korean leader. And it served as a reminder that for all of Kim's camera-ready smiles and diplomatic gestures of recent months, North Korea remains an opaque, unpredictable country.

The announcement by the communist government — issued in the middle of the night in North Korea — said that the military exercises, known as Max Thunder, were a "provocation" that could affect the fate of the unprecedented summit.

North Korea always reacts angrily to the joint US-South Korea military exercises, considering them a rehearsal for an invasion. But this year, with the sudden burst of diplomacy, had appeared to be different.

The South Korean and US militaries had scaled back and played down the exercises, declining the news media the usual access to the drills. North Korea said barely a word about the drills during the computer simulation exercises that took place through April.

But the two-week-long Max Thunder drills between the two countries' air forces, an annual event that began on Friday and involve about 100 warplanes including B-52 bombers and F-15K jets, have clearly struck a nerve.

North Korea suggested that the drills were putting the proposed summit between Trump and Kim, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, in jeopardy.

"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," said KCNA, the North's Korean Central News Agency.

According to KCNA, North Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan said that the country has no interest in a summit with the US if it is going to be a "one-sided" affair where it is pressured to give up its nuclear weapons.

Kim Kye-gwan criticized recent comments by Trump's top security adviser John Bolton and other US officials who have been talking about how the North should follow the "Libyan model" of nuclear disarmament and provide a "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement".

He also criticized other US comments that the North should completely abandon not only its nukes and missiles but also its biological and chemical weapons.

Some analysts said that bringing up Libya, which dismantled its rudimentary nuclear program in the 2000s in exchange for sanctions relief, would risk derailing any progress in negotiations with North Korea.

Kim Jong-un took power weeks after former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's gruesome death at the hands of rebel forces amid a popular uprising in October 2011. North Korea has frequently used Gadhafi's death to justify its own nuclear development in the face of perceived US threats.

"The United States will look at what North Korea has said independently, and continue to coordinate closely with our allies," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said.

The US State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, "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. They are exercises that are legal. They're planned well, well in advance."

She also said that the US had received no notification of a change in plans for the summit meeting. "We will continue to go ahead and plan the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un," she said.

The Pentagon said that Max Thunder was an annual exercise to maintain military readiness to defend South Korea. "The defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed," said a US Defense Department spokesman Col. Rob Manning.

North Korea disagreed. "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.

By mentioning the Panmunjom Declaration, North Korea was referring to the agreement signed last month by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in following their historic summit.

They agreed to work to turn the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953 into a peace treaty that would officially bring the war to a close, and also to pursue the "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula.

"North Korea's actions today are not surprising. They come straight from the Kim Jong-il playbook on negotiations: Raise expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough, cancel/suggest Pyongyang might cancel the meeting and then push for more concessions to have the meeting," according to Anthony Ruggiero, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"The Trump administration must see through this blatant attempt to coerce additional concessions. The US should continue the defensive military exercises and remind Kim that the maximum pressure campaign will be increased if North Korea pulls out of the summit," he added.

Several experts said that North Korea's warning was probably a bump in the road rather than a dire threat to next month's meeting. But they said that it pointed up the complexity of the negotiations that Trump faces.

"It lays down a probable marker that exercises will be on the table in negotiations," said Victor Cha, a Korea scholar at Georgetown University whom the Trump administration had considered as ambassador to Seoul.

At the same time as threatening to scuttle the summit with Trump, North Korea canceled talks with South Korean officials that had been scheduled for Wednesday, less than 24 hours after agreeing to them.

North Korea had said that it would send five senior officials to the border village of Panmunjom for meetings with South Korean officials, the first such talks since the April 27 inter-Korean summit. They were due to discuss some of the infrastructure aid that South Korea would provide to North Korea as part of their broader detente.

Baik Tae-hyun, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, described Pyongyang's decision as "regrettable" and said that it ran counter to the "spirit and purpose" of the Panmunjom Declaration.

Baik urged the North to swiftly return to the talks but would not speculate on whether the North's move would affect next month's planned meeting between Kim and Trump.

In a Unification Ministry statement, Seoul pledged to continue pursuing "necessary measures through close consultations with relevant ministries to achieve sustainable development of inter-Korean relations and a permanent peace settlement through the implementation of the Panmunjom Declaration."

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