North Korea Threatens To Scrap Summit With The United States Over Military Exercise (Updated)

The regime in Pyongyang has already canceled a meeting with South Korean officials over the issue and appears to be look for more concessions.

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North Korea's premier Kim Jong Un and his regime appear to be trying to use a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump as leverage to force the United States and South Korea to cancel a combined military exercise on the Peninsula. Despite reportedly having agreed to not be publicly critical of the drills, North Korean officials have said they could cancel the planned meeting in Singapore if the two countries continue the maneuvers and have already announced they will no longer attend a high-level engagement with their South Korean counterparts.

Yonhap News was the first to report the developments, which came on what is already May 16, 2018, on the Peninsula. The 2018 iteration of the annual Max Thunder exercise, which the South Korean outlet said was specifically at issue, began earlier that month and includes a variety of different U.S. and South Korean aircraft types, including F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. The ostensible goal is to give the two countries a chance to train on how they would conduct a major air war, including air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, together.

Max Thunder "is designed to train allied air forces to quickly generate overwhelming air power under realistic conditions," a U.S. military press release explained after the Max Thunder exercise in 2017. "Max Thunder serves as an invaluable opportunity for U.S. and ROKAF [Republic of Korea Air Force] forces to train together shoulder-to-shoulder and sharpen tactical skills vital to the defense and security of the Korean Peninsula,” U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Bergeson, head of Seventh Air Force, the service's main unit in South Korea, said at that time.

Max Thunder typically occurs concurrently with the larger annual U.S.-South Korea Foal Eagle exercise, which incorporates ground and naval forces, as well. According to the Pentagon, the 2018 iterations of Max Thunder and Foal Eagle were ongoing as of May 15, 2018, after both countries agreed to push them back so as not to conflict with the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang earlier in the year. There were no plans to halt them in response to North Korea's objections.

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A South Korean Air Force F-15K Slam Eagle taxies past an FA-50 light combat jet, at far right, and a pair of F-4E Phantom IIs during Max Thunder 17.

So far, news of Foal Eagle and Max Thunder appears to be extremely muted, with very few official press items appearing on the websites of U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Forces Korea, or U.S. Pacific Air Forces.  Earlier reports suggested that the United States and South Korea had agreed to scale back the overall scope of the drills, as well.

It is very likely that United States has done this deliberately so as not to inflame tensions with North Korea ahead of the summit in Singapore between Trump and Kim, which is set to take place on June 12, 2018. The lack of official statements stands in stark contrast to the reporting surrounding Exercise Vigilant Ace in December 2017, which involved hundreds of American and South Korean military aircraft, including F-22s and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, in a very public show of force.

However, in something of a return to form, North Korean authorities are criticizing the Max Thunder exercise using well-established propaganda language. According to Yonhap, statements from the country's state-operated Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) have decried the drill as a preparation for an invasion of the North, which is how officials in Pyongyang have routinely described U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers for decades. Earlier in May 2018, KCNA lambasted the United States and South Korea for bringing up the North's abysmal human rights record, another long-standing point of contention.

"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 development on the Korean Peninsula," KCNA declared. "The United States will ... 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."

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, shakes hands with North Korean Premier Kim Jong Un during a meeting in Pyongyang in May 2018.

This rhetoric, along with the threat not to participate in the summit with Trump and the decision to cancel the session with South Korean officials on the southern side of the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom, seem at odds with North Korea's more conciliatory tone following a historic meeting between Kim and South Korea's president Moon Jae In in April 2018. The North-South meeting originally scheduled for May 16, 2018, was supposed to be one in a series to lay the groundwork for implementing various proposals, which Kim and Moon had previously agreed to in principle in a joint statement.

“This potential meeting [between Trump and Kim] has been agreed to, there are no additional conditions being stipulated," White House spokesman Raj Shah had said on May 12, 2018, while appearing on ABC's "This Week." "But, again they [North Korea] — they cannot engage in missile testing, they cannot engage in nuclear testing and they can’t publicly object to the U.S.-South Korea planned military exercises.”

But the apparent change in tone is not necessarily surprising. Kim appears to be negotiating from a position of strength and is clearly eager to see what concessions he can get the United States and South Korea to agree to in the meantime. Though the sudden burst of charged rhetoric may seem irrational, being able to arbitrarily set the terms for meetings and other engagements show that North Korea remains very much in control of the process, something that was very evident from the KCNA statement.

"There is a limit to the amount of goodwill and opportunity [we, North Korea,] can give," the official state news outlet said. "We will be keenly watching the future behavior  of the U.S. and South Korean authorities."

In addition, the regime in Pyongyang recently announced plans to host foreign media and other officials to witness what it says will be the "dismantlement" of its Punggye-ri nuclear test sit at the end of May 2018. As we and others have noted, this isn't much of a concession, since North Korea's scientists have likely gathered enough data to do future work using models and simulations instead, not to mention that there are serious questions about whether the mountainside could even withstand more testing.

Still, Kim clearly did this with an eye toward extracting something in kind from the United States and South Korea. Helping pave the way for the summit with Trump might have been reason enough, but it now appears the premier is interested in seeing what else he can get in return. He could also be looking to receive additional rewards for the recent release of three American prisoners, including two that the regime arrested after Trump became president.

Al Drago/Picture-Alliance/DPA via AP

Trump, at center, speaks to the press at Andrews Air Force Base flanked by Kim Dong Chul, Kim Sang Duk, and Kim Hak Song after their release from North Korea.

In addition, it is possible at the Kim is placating other factions within his regime who are not as pleased with the idea of negotiating more formal settlements with the United States and South Korea that could more permanently end the conflict on the Peninsula. North Korean authorities have long used the specter of conflict with the South and its allies in Washington as a means to exert control over the country and many of those individuals, who have spent their entire lives defying the international order, may not be pleased with the potential for greater foreign engagement. 

We have talked at length how Kim seems to have finally realized a firm grip on power in Pyongyang, but that control could erode rapidly as the realization of a possible deal with the U.S. and an end to the status quo draws near. Although Kim has purged many of powerful North Korean leaders, the remaining power players that have spent their lives benefitting from the military stalemate with the South may very well see the young ruler's engagement with long-standing enemies as radical.

So far, there has been no public response from the Trump Administration, which has been very active in promoting the meeting with Kim. If the summit falls apart it could be a major blow for a president who styles himself as an experienced negotiator. For the government in Pyongyang, the only major risk appears to be a return to the tense status quo on the Peninsula.

Updated: 5/16/2018

An English translation of the KCNA statement regarding the planned Trump-Kim summit is now available. It attributes the remarks to Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea's First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The statement names U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton specifically and focuses some of its most pointed criticism at his proposal to apply a "Libya model" to North Korea. Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program, which was still in the very early stages of development, in 2003. In 2011, a U.S.-backed intervention enabled rebels to topple the regime and execute the Libyan strongman. 

The statement also makes reference to Iraq, where dictator Saddam Hussein also gave up his nuclear ambitions and then ended up deposed in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Gwan's statements as a whole only reinforce that Kim has no intention of giving up his nuclear arsenal, which he sees as the guarantor of his regime's survival.

On May 16, 2018, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also sought to distance Trump from Bolton's comments. "There's not a cookie cutter model on how this would work," she said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has now met multiple times with North Korean officials both in that capacity and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had previously suggested that the Trump administration was considering offering economic incentives and sanctions relief in exchange for concessions short of North Korea giving up its nuclear arsenal. This could include the regime in Pyongyang agreeing to eliminate its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com