North Korea sent shock waves through the Trump administration’s hope for a history-making summit with Kim Jong-un, angrily canceling a planned meeting with South Korean officials Wednesday to protest joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and calling into doubt President Trump’s announced meeting with Mr. Kim in Singapore in less than a month.
The threat was issued via the North’s state-controlled news service despite assurances from Pyongyang that it did not object to the military drill and included a blast of old-style North Korean rhetoric denouncing “U.S. imperialist aggressor forces” and the “madcap North-targeted war and confrontation racket being kicked up” by Seoul.
The harsh rhetoric continued Wednesday morning in Korea, with the North saying via its official Korean Central News Agency that it will never engage in trade with the U.S., a carrot Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had dangled at the weekend, and may reconsider its denuclearization pledges. KCNA also said Mr. Trump would become known as a failed leader if he follows in the footsteps of previous U.S. presidents.
The announcements were jolting after two visits to the North by Mr. Pompeo to meet with Mr. Kim and a string of goodwill gestures on both sides that included the release last week of three Korean-Americans held in North Korean prisons. Analysts were divided over whether the move was a shift in strategy, a negotiating ploy by Mr. Kim or an expression of genuine unhappiness.
“If the U.S. and the South Korean authorities regard the phase of improving inter-Korean ties and the [North Korean]-U.S. dialogue provided by the proactive and broadminded efforts and measures of [North Korea] as something allowed any time and any hour, then they are sadly mistaken,” the statement warned.
The canceled North-South talks were meant to deepen a rapprochement pushed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, dealing with matters such as connecting railroads, fielding inter-Korean sports teams, restoring forests in the North and reuniting families separated by the divisions on the peninsula.
The White House responded cautiously to the development, which it first learned of from South Korean press reports. Mr. Trump avoided any immediate comment, and spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said only that the administration “will look at what North Korea has said” and “continue to coordinate closely with our allies.”
Pentagon officials insisted there was nothing unpredictable or new about the ongoing joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, but the North Korean statement denounced them as a “rude and wicked provocation.”
Summit in doubt
North Korea said the drills violated a “new peace era” agreement signed between Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon when the two met for a historic summit last month. As a result, it said, “the U.S. will have to think twice about the fate of the DPRK-U.S. summit” scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
Even the threat of killing the summit stunned Washington, though. Just two days earlier, White House officials delivered the ambitious promise to North Korea that if it gives up its nuclear weapons program, then the U.S. will provide economic aid for Pyongyang rivaling any other nation in the region. Using Twitter, Mr. Trump personally and repeatedly praised Mr. Kim’s recent moves and said the decision to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear test site was a “very smart and gracious gesture.”Administration critics pounced Tuesday evening. Some congressional Democrats asserted that Mr. Trump’s eagerness to meet with Mr. Kim and nail down a deal on Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal may have backfired.
“Diplomacy is better than war, but this is why offering the presidential meeting up front is, ahem, unconventional,” Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat, tweeted.
He said the administration lacks “a functioning State Department” and that in part has led to the apparent breakdown.
Other Democrats urged the president to stand firm in the face of the North’s negotiating ploy and to avoid a return to the confrontational exchanges that dominated much of Mr. Trump’s first year in office.
“Don’t take the bait, @realDonaldTrump,” Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, tweeted. “U.S. military professionals training in the region with our allies is a better and more responsible deterrent to #NorthKorea than ‘fire and fury’ and other rhetorical bombast.”
Less than year ago, Pyongyang and Washington were engaged in intense brinkmanship after Mr. Trump imposed a “maximum pressure” strategy of expanded economic sanctions against North Korea and military posturing in the region.
The administration says the strategy has brought Pyongyang to the negotiating table after a period of North Korean nuclear weapons and long-range missile tests and direct threats against the U.S. homeland. But analysts say the U.S. strategy has depended heavily on buy-in from China, which is North Korea’s main economic lifeline and geopolitical backer.
The China card
Some speculated that Beijing might be using North Korean threats as a way to pressure the Trump administration to yield in intense U.S.-Chinese trade negotiations. Regional analyst Gordon Chang told CNN that “we have to assume there’s a high degree of coordination going on” between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Mr. Kim.
Another explanation may be that Mr. Kim has become unnerved by the fast pace of potential negotiations with Washington and decided to slow the momentum.
Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that North Korea had given U.S. officials no official message about the ongoing military drills and asserted Tuesday afternoon that preparations for the June 12 summit were unaffected.
Pentagon officials rejected the suggestion that the annual series of joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that started May 11 were a provocation to the North.
“The defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed,” said Defense Department spokesman Col. Rob Manning.
South Korean media reported that eight U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter jets arrived in South Korea on May 1 to participate in the annual Max Thunder drills, which conclude May 25. Last year’s Max Thunder drills were conducted as part of Foal Eagle drills — a comprehensive, large-scale field exercise that the U.S. and South Korea stage together each year. North Korea in the past has routinely denounced it as a “rehearsal” for an invasion.
Washington and Seoul postponed a significant portion of the planned military drills as a goodwill gesture during the Winter Olympics in South Korea. The prospect of a major thaw in North-South tensions then grew from a diplomatic push during the Olympics that was followed by last month’s summit between Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim.
The North-South meeting was set to take place Wednesday on the southern side of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. The head of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland was slated to meet with his counterpart from the South’s Unification Ministry at the “truce village” of Panmunjom.
• Dave Boyer, Carlo Muñoz and Ben Wolfgang contributed to this article.
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