SEOUL — North Korea is casting doubt on next month’s summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump over joint Air Force drills taking place in South Korea, which it says are ruining the diplomatic mood.
North Korea always reacts angrily to the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, considering them as a rehearsal for an invasion. But this year, with the sudden burst of diplomacy, had appeared to be different.
The South Korean and U.S. militaries had scaled back and played down the exercises, declining the news media the usual access to the drills. North Korea barely said a word about the drills during the computer simulation exercises that took place through April.
The two-week-long Max Thunder drills between the two countries’ Air Forces, an annual event that began on Friday, have, however, clearly struck a nerve.
North Korea suggested that the drills were putting the proposed summit between Trump and Kim, scheduled for June 12, in jeopardy.
“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,” said KCNA, the North’s Korean Central News Agency.
Trump and Kim are due to meet in Singapore, which would be the first time a North Korean leader had meet with a sitting U.S. president.
“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 Tuesday afternoon.
State Dept spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States has not received a notice of any change or cancellation. She said the government is continuing to plan for the summit and is confident that Kim understands the need for exercises.
A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Rob Manning, said Tuesday that the exercises are part of the U.S.-South Korean alliance’s “routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness.”
Manning said the purpose of the exercises is to enhance the alliance’s ability to defend South Korea.
“While we will not discuss specifics, the defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed,” he said.
North Korea, as it has in the past, 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.
The Max Thunder exercise involves about 100 warplanes, including eight F-22 radar-evading fighters and an unspecified number of B-52 bombers and F-15K jets, according to the South’s main Yonhap News Agency. During last year’s Max Thunder exercises, U.S. and South Korean fighter jets flew an average 60 sorties a day to showcase their firepower.
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.
Trump and his top aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, both previously known for their hard line views on North Korea, have express optimism that a denuclearization agreement can be worked out.
In surprising detail, Pompeo — who says Kim watches foreign news reports — has laid out the economic and development aid that would flow to the North Korean regime if it permanently and verifiably gives up its nuclear weapons program.
But North Korea, despite being run by one totalitarian family for the last seven decades, is not entirely monolithic. It does have its hawks and its doves, and analysts speculated that hard-liners in the military, concerned about the sudden talk of denuclearization, might be trying to interfere with the current diplomatic efforts.
At the same time as threatening to scupper 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 it would send five senior officials to 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.
The North was going to send Ri Son Kwon, who leads the North Korean agency in charge of inter-Korean exchanges and was present at the summit, while the South was going to send senior officials from the transport ministry and forest service.
“Through the inter-Korean high-level talks, [we] will push to lay the groundwork for sustainable development and lasting peace by having in-depth discussions and faithfully implementing the Panmunjom Declaration,” the South’s unification ministry said in a statement Tuesday.
Max Thunder is a two-week operation that has been held annually in the spring for about 10 years. It features the United States and South Korea flying strike aircraft together from air bases in South Korea and Japan to practice air-to-air combat. About 1,000 U.S. troops and 500 South Koreans were involved last year, according to a U.S. military statement published at the time.
Max Thunder is significantly smaller than Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, two other military exercises that were held in April, and briefly paused to reduce tensions so Kim and Moon could meet at the border at the demilitarized zone between their nations to discuss potential peace plans.
The Pentagon said in March that Foal Eagle, which includes ground maneuvers, would involve about 11,500 U.S. troops and 290,000 South Koreans this year, while Key Resolve would focus more on computer simulation and involve about 12,200 U.S. troops and 10,000 South Koreans.
The threat by North Korea to cancel the summit now would seem to contradict the message that South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong brought to the White House in March, when Kim volunteered to meet with Trump. At that time, Kim’s message was that North Korea would refrain from additional nuclear or missile testing and understood “that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue.”
Dan Lamothe and Anne Gearn in Washington contributed to this article.