North Korea is playing hardball.
After the US and South Korea started joint military drills last week, North Korea canceled a planned meeting with South Korean officials on Tuesday and even threatened to back out of the historic summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
Experts believe it could be a bluff, and that the North probably won’t scuttle the coming meeting — but that’s not 100 percent clear, either.
Pyongyang is upset about a joint US-South Korea military drill, known as “Max Thunder,” that started last Friday. That on its own is fairly normal, as Pyongyang routinely objects to these drills and claims they’re practice drills for an eventual invasion of North Korea.
But the grumbling stands out this time for two reasons. First, North Korean officials knew about these drills weeks ago, yet only decided to complain right now — just hours before a planned meeting with South Korea at the inter-Korean border on Wednesday.
Second, Pyongyang is explicitly tying these drills to the US and the future of the upcoming nuclear talks between Kim and Trump. In a statement released Tuesday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, North Korea warned, “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.”
In other words, you better behave yourselves and not threaten us, or we’ll pull right out of this negotiation.
But here’s the thing: Experts note that North Korea is unlikely to actually cancel the Trump-Kim summit. After all, one of the things the Kim regime wants more than anything is a meeting with the American president. It’s doubtful that Pyongyang would throw it all away less than a month before realizing a decades-long dream.
Ankit Panda, a North Korea expert, says Pyongyang might just be testing Trump to see how badly he really wants a meeting — and if he’ll cancel the drills to ensure a meeting happens. “What’s going on here is diplomatic brinkmanship of sorts,” Panda tweeted.
That doesn’t mean North Korea doesn’t have some legitimate concerns headed into the historic meeting with America. “It’s unlikely they kill the summit,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, “but clearly something is going on.”
Washington says nothing has changed after the announcement. The State Department confirmed it is still preparing for the June 12 Trump-Kim meeting, and the Pentagon says the military drills will continue.
But one thing is now clear: North Korea isn’t going to just roll over and play dead. It’s negotiating time — and Kim is not messing around.