North Korea cancelled a high-level meeting with South Korea early on Wednesday morning and threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over military exercises between Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang has long claimed are invasion rehearsals.
The surprise declaration, which came in a pre-dawn dispatch in North Korea's state media, appears to cool what had been an unusual flurry of outreach from a country that last year conducted a provocative series of weapons tests that had many fearing the region was on the edge of war.
It's still unclear, however, whether the North intends to scuttle all diplomacy or merely wants to gain leverage ahead of the planned June 12 talks between Kim and Trump.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises a "provocation" and said Pyongyang had no choice but to suspend the talks.
"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," the Seoul-based Yonhap news agency quoted KCNA as saying.
KNCA also cast doubt on the Kim-Trump summit.
"The United States will also 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."
KCNA said the North objected to the two-week "Max Thunder" air combat drills, which began Monday and reportedly involve about 100 aircraft.
A South Korean Air Force F-16 takes off at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, during last year's Max Thunder military drills. (Lance Cpl. Carlos Jimenez/U.S. Marine Corps/Reuters)
Those aircraft, according to KCNA, include nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and stealth F-22 fighter jets, two of the U.S. military assets it has previously said are aimed at launching nuclear strikes on the North.
Annual military drills between Washington and Seoul have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, and analysts have wondered whether their continuation would hurt the détente that, since an outreach by Kim in January, has replaced the insults and threats of war.
Earlier — and much larger — springtime drills, which Washington and Seoul toned down, went off without the North's typically fiery condemnation or accompanying weapons tests.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department emphasized that Kim had previously indicated he understood the need and purpose of the U.S. continuing its long-planned exercises with South Korea.
State department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the U.S. had not heard anything directly from Pyongyang or Seoul that would change that.
"We will continue to go ahead and plan the meeting," Nauert said.
Kim shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the April 27 talks in Panmunjom. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)
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