The warning came even as the United States was grappling with the implications of an earlier report in North Korea’s official news agency that called the ongoing US-South Korean air force exercises in the region a “provocation” that could have consequences for the talks.
North Korea has cast serious doubts on the fate of the upcoming June summit between Chairman Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, saying it will not engage in the dialogue if it was forced into “unilateral nuclear abandonment” – a likely reference to denuclearisation as a key US goal.
This blunt warning came on Tuesday as the United States was still grappling with the implications of an earlier report in North Korea’s official news agency that called the ongoing US-South Korean air force exercises in the region a “provocation” that could have consequences for the talks.
The new warning came in a statement from First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who is also North Korea’s main disarmament negotiator. “If the Trump administration is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-US summit,” he said. The statement was carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
There was no response from the US to the late statement.
Earlier in the day, KCNA had criticised the Max Thunder exercise. “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,” it said.
The reference was to a joint statement from a North-South summit last month.
“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,” the news agency added.
President Trump is scheduled to meet Chairman Kim in Singapore on June 12 in a first-ever summit between the leaders of the two countries.
Seemingly surprised by the statement, the United States reacted with caution. “We are aware of the South Korean media report,” said Sarah Sanders, the president’s press secretary. “The United States will look at what North Korea has said independently, and continue to coordinate closely with our allies.”
Spokesperson Heather Nauert at the state department was barely able to conceal her surprise, given that the North Korean leader had “previously said he understands the need and utility of the United States and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) continuing in their joint exercises”. She went on to say that there had been “no formal or even informal notification of anything” from North Korea, and the United States will continue preparing for next month’s summit.
There was no word yet from President Trump, who has tweeted and remarked frequently about the upcoming talks at every major development — he broke the date and location of the talks in a Twitter post, for instance.
While excited about the prospect of making history through the talks, and probably landing a Nobel peace prize, the president has also tried to temper expectations through warnings that he would either call off the talks or walk away “respectfully” if doubtful of the outcome.
The US has termed denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula as the goal of the talks. “If North Korea takes bold action to quickly denuclearise, the United States is prepared to work with North Korea to achieve prosperity on a par with our South Korean friends,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently. “If Chairman Kim chooses the right path, there is a future brimming with peace and prosperity for the North Korean people.”
Although there is a general expectation that Kim is willing to discuss denuclearisation, Pompeo – who has met the North Korean leader twice – has indicated that it is still a work in progress.
Meanwhile, experts have warned that the term ‘denuclearisation’ is understood differently in North Korea. While the United States understands it as North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons and dismantling the support structure, Pyongyang is likely to demand that the US in return take down the security structure (including the nuclear umbrella) erected by it in the region in partnership with South Korea and Japan.