Will Kim Jong Un meet Donald Trump? North Korea suspends talks with South

North Korea on Wednesday threw into question an unprecedented summit between its leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump scheduled for next month, denouncing military exercises between South Korea and the United States as a provocation and calling off high-level talks with Seoul.

A report on North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency angrily attacked the “Max Thunder” air combat drills, which it said involved US stealth fighters and B-52 bombers, and appeared to mark a break in months of warming ties between North and South Korea and between Pyongyang and Washington.

Any cancellation of the June 12 summit in Singapore, the first meeting between a serving US president and a North Korean leader, would deal a major blow to Trump’s efforts to score the biggest diplomatic achievement of his presidency.

Trump has raised expectations for a successful meeting even as many analysts have been skeptical of the chances of bridging the gap due to questions about North Korea’s willingness to give up a nuclear arsenal that now threatens the United States.

The KCNA report called the air drills a “provocation” that went against the trend of warming ties. “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, referring to a joint statement from an April 27 inter-Korea summit.

“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,” KCNA said.

A Trump-Kim summit until recently had looked impossible given the insults and threats the two leaders exchanged last year over North Korea`s development of nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States.

“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,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing.

“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,” she said.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the United States would examine the North Korean statement “and continue to coordinate closely with our allies.”

South Korea`s National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong said in early March, after meeting Kim, that the North Korean leader understood that “routine” joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States would continue in spite of a warming of ties.

This was widely considered to be a major North Korea concession, though Pyongyang never publicly withdrew its long-standing demand for an end to the drills.

Kim’s latest move could be aimed at testing Trump’s willingness to make concessions ahead of the summit, which is due to be preceded by a visit to Washington next week by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

A US government expert on North Korea said Kim may also be trying to gauge whether Trump is willing to walk away from the meeting, which has prompted the president’s supporters to suggest he deserves to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Any acquiescence by Trump to a North Korean demand for a halt to joint drills would likely undermine South Korean and Japanese trust in his commitment to their security. Kim has also shown a desire to win international approval for his diplomatic outreach, and any sign that he is sabotaging the talks could damage this effort.

SUSPENDED NORTH-SOUTH MEETING

KCNA said North Korea was suspending a ministerial-level North-South meeting, which had been due to be held on Wednesday to focus on plans to implement the inter-Korea summit declaration, including promises to formally end the Korean War and pursue “complete denuclearization”.

“The US should make efforts to create an atmosphere for mutual respect and confidence before dialogue, not resorting to a foolish farce that may reverse the good trend created with much effort,” KCNA said.

The Pentagon said the May 14-25 “Max Thunder” exercises were routine and defensive in nature. A spokesman said the exercises would take place at Gwangju air base and would be “at a scale similar to that of the previous years”.

Last year, Max Thunder involved about 1,500 US and South Korean personnel flying aircraft including F-16 fighter jets, according to a US Air Force website.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday the United States would agree to lift sanctions on North Korea if it agreed to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program, a move that would create economic prosperity that would rival that of South Korea.

North Korea said on Saturday it would dismantle its nuclear bomb test site some time between May 23 and May 25 to uphold its pledge to cease tests.

Joshua Pollack, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said Pyongyang appeared irritated by the US administration`s vow to maintain sanctions in spite of North Korean concessions.

“The North Koreans want a change in tone from the US, and at least so far, they`re not hearing one,” he said.

A South Korean presidential adviser warned on Tuesday that an incremental North Korean approach to denuclearization would not be acceptable to Trump or the South Korean public.

Bonnie Glaser, of Washington`s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said Kim may be being influenced by Chinese President Xi Jinping after two recent meetings with the Chinese leader, who has advocated a freeze in North Korea`s nuclear program in return for a freeze in US-South Korean drills.

“The fact this issue is back on the table suggests Xi Jinping may have raised it with Kim, and that Kim is carrying Xi’s water,” she said.

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CIA chief Mike Pompeo met Kim Jong Un in North Korea, says US President Donald Trump

Washington: US President Donald Trump on Wednesday confirmed his CIA director had met with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on a secret visit to Pyongyang. The meeting comes ahead of a planned summit meeting between the two leaders.

“Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now,” tweeted Trump. “Denuclearisation will be a great thing for the world, but also for North Korea,” he added.

Trump had earlier said that the summit could, with his ‘blessing’, explore a peace treaty to formally end the conflict. 

“We are looking at the possibility of replacing the armistice regime on the Korean peninsula with a peace regime. But this is not something we can do by ourselves. It needs close discussions with relevant parties including North Korea,” a senior official at South Korea’s presidential Blue House said on Wednesday, AFP reported.

As per media reports, Trump plans to hold a summit meeting with Kim within the next two months. The pair have not spoken directly, the White House said, but the US President revealed Tuesday there had been contact at “very high levels” to prepare for the historic meeting – an apparent reference to Pompeo’s visit, as per AFP.

US officials also said that no decision has yet been made on a meeting venue, but China, North Korea, South Korea and Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone between the two Koreas are seen as possible locations.

Beijing is North Korea`s sole major ally, an alliance dating back to the Korean War, but relations deteriorated after China supported United Nations sanctions to punish Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons programme.

Last month Kim had made a surprise visit to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping in what was believed to be the North Korean leader’s first trip outside his isolated nation’s borders since he succeeded his father in 2011.

Senior Chinese officials have since travelled to Pyongyang amid mounting speculation Xi might make a reciprocal visit.

Meanwhile, South Korea said on Wednesday it is considering how to change a decades-old armistice with North Korea into a peace agreement. Kim is expected to meet South Korea President Moon Jae-In at a landmark meeting on April 27, with a bid to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

The Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two sides ‘technically at war’. The Demilitarised Zone between them bristles with minefields and fortifications. While the US-led UN command, China and North Korea are signatories to the decades-old armistice, South Korea is not.

Next week’s meeting will be just the third summit between the North and South since the armistice was signed 65 years ago. 

(With AFP inputs)

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