North Korean state media reported on Wednesday local time that the nation’s senior diplomats would cancel scheduled high-level talks with South Korean counterparts, reportedly due to military drills Seoul had planned to execute with the United States.
Pyongyang deployed high-level officials to both Seoul and Beijing this week. Ri Son-kwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, was scheduled to meet with South Korean officials on Tuesday. Another group of unnamed senior officials reportedly landed in Beijing on Monday to continue discussions in anticipation of a planned meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
On Wednesday local time (Tuesday afternoon in most of the United States), the South Korean outlet Yonhap reported that the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the government news outlet of the Kim regime, had published a report announcing that the inter-Korean talks would no longer occur. The report specifically cited the “Max Thunder” military drills being held jointly between South Korea and the United States as the reason for their backing out of the meeting.
“This exercise targeting us, which is being carried out across South Korea and targeting us, is a flagrant challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration and an intentional military provocation running counter to the positive political development on the Korean Peninsula,” Yonhap quoted KCNA as saying. “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.”
Yonhap added that KCNA’s brief went on to call “into question whether next month’s summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump can go ahead as planned.”
“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,” Yonhap quoted KCNA as saying.
The meeting between Kim and Trump is expected to address “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” which Kim expressed a desire to see during his meeting with Moon on the border of their two countries. American officials have stated that they will not pursue regime change in North Korea and are open to giving financial incentives to the Kim regime to abandon its illegal nuclear weapons program, which it uses to threaten nuclear strikes on South Korea, the United States, and Japan on a regular basis.
A report using satellite images on the website 38 North Monday found that North Korea has made significant moves towards shutting down its Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, the only such site in the country. Several buildings have been dismantled, and a new platform, perhaps to accommodate journalists, has been assembled at the site. KCNA announced Saturday it will invite international journalists to watch the shutdown of the site; skeptics believe the site is inoperable and a symbolic “shutdown” would cost Pyongyang little.
Adding to confusion on Tuesday was the publication of a report by South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo revealing that North Korea has maintained a secret uranium enrichment facility independent of the supplies found at Punggye-ri. Joongang Ilbo reports that American intelligence sources are aware of the site and will demand that its contents be part of any deal to denuclearize the country, not simply the supplies currently known to exist.
“Max Thunder” is the name given to two-week-long air drills by both militaries, which is typically a drill practiced as part of the larger Foal Eagle joint exercise but was removed from the schedule reportedly as a response to Kim Jong-un’s being open to meeting with both Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Both militaries openly stated they will hold this exercise in May, as they do every year. Yonhap reported on March 21 that the “Max Thunder drill will be held for two weeks from May 11, involving more than 100 Air Force jets of the allies,” leaving significant time between then and the Panmunjom summit with Moon Jae-in for Kim Jong-un to raise objections over these exercises. Yet this is the first major step North Korea has made to object to the exercises.
Update: State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters during her regular press briefing on Tuesday that the KCNA report did not correspond to any private messages American officials have received: “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.”