Donald Trump’s historic meeting with Kim Jong-un has been thrown into uncertainty as North Korea warned it could be cancelled over US military exercises and if Washington presses ahead with its one-sided demand for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arsenal.
Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, warned on Wednesday that Pyongyang was not interested in talks that would pressure the rogue state to “unilaterally” give up its nuclear programme, taking aim at “unbridled remarks” by John Bolton, the US national security adviser, and other high-ranking White House officials.
In a statement issued by the North Korean Central News Agency [KCNA], Mr Kim took issue in particular with Mr Bolton’s references to the so-called Libya model of nuclear abandonment and his statements on “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation.”
Mr Kim claimed the remarks cast doubt on America’s sincerity, underlining that his country was not Libya, which met a “miserable fate.”
He added: “This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister moves to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had [sic] been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”
North Korea analysts have cautioned that the undignified, brutal death of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, may be foremost on Kim Jong-un’s mind ahead of talks on denuclearisation.
Several also pointed to Mr Bolton’s fractious history with North Korea when he was appointed by Mr Trump in March.
In 2003, North Korea refused to participate in multilateral talks if Mr Bolton was present after he labelled then leader Kim Jong-il a “tyrannical dictator”, a memory which the regime invoked on Wednesday.
“We do not hide our feelings of repugnance towards him,” said Mr Kim, warning the Trump administration to remember the lessons of the past.
His remarks followed an unexpected announcement by KCNA on Tuesday that planned talks with South Korea had been postponed just hours before they were due to start because of the joint military drills.
America was also warned that “careful deliberations” would need to take place over whether to go ahead with Mr Trump’s planned meeting with Kim.
The reaction was to the ‘Max Thunder’ joint military exercises from America and South Korea that reportedly involve 100 war planes including B-52 bombers and F-15K jets.
The news blindsided the US State Department, which said it had received no “formal or informal” notification that the meeting was off.
A spokesman said there was nothing “provocative” or illegal about the military drills and insisted US officials would continue to prepare for the Trump-Kim summit.
Kim vs Moon comparison side by side
The meeting was the culmination of a diplomatic drive from North Korea that saw Kim meet South Korean president Moon Jae-in last month.
Further talks were planned between both countries on Wednesday but just hours before the meetings North Korea announced it was pulling out because of military exercises.
“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 KCNA reported, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
“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.
“We’ll keenly monitor how the United States and South Korean authorities will react.”
Pyongyang also used its official newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, to lash out at the US for voicing concerns over the North’s human rights record earlier this month, calling the criticism “unacceptable” and “extremely rude” for a dialogue partner.
However, the focal point of North Korea’s current ire is the joint US-South Korea military drills, which have long been criticised by Pyongyang, which has framed the moves in the past as preparations for an invasion.
Heather Nauert, the US State Department spokesman, said the military exercises were “certainly not provocative” and said Kim had previously said he “understands” the need for them to take place.
Video: Trump announces he will meet Kim Jong-un to pursue peace
She said there had been “no formal or even informal notification” that the US-North Korea summit was cancelled, adding: “We will continue to go ahead and plan the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jung-un.”
Army Col. Rob Manning said this current exercise is part of the US and South Korea’s “routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness.”
Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said the purpose of Max Thunder and exercise Foal Eagle – another training event – is to enhance the two nations’ abilities to operate together to defend South Korea.
“The defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed,” said Manning.
Kim Jong-un has the USA and South Korea exactly where he wants them
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 U.S., 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 denuclearisation 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.
Relations between North Korea and China appear to be experiencing a new detente after several frosty years.
A delegation of senior North Korean officials visited China this week to learn about the Chinese model of “reform and opening up,” Beijing said on Wednesday.
The visit has been linked in Chinese media to a vow last month by Pyongyang to ditch its nuclear weapons program in favour of “socialist economic construction”.
China and North Korea are historic allies, but friction emerged last year after the North escalated regional tensions with a series of missile tests, prompting Beijing to back hard-hitting sanctions against its wayward neighbour.
But ties appear to be back on track, with Kim Jong-un making two visits to China in the last few weeks. North Korean official media said the delegation arrived in Beijing on Monday and was led by Pak Thae-song, vice chairman of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK).
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “This visit is a concrete example of the important consensus between General Secretary Xi Jinping and Chairman Kim Jong Un.”
The delegation came to “learn about the achievements of China’s domestic economic development and reform and opening-up process, and promote an exchange of experience between the two parties on governance issues,” Mr Lu said.
Mr Lu did not reveal how long the trip would last, but the Global Times newspaper speculated that the delegation might visit the southern province of Guangdong, where China’s opening up first began 40 years ago.
The media outlet quoted an expert as saying that, compared to South Korea, China was a more practical model for North Korea to follow “as the two countries’ political systems are more similar”.
Separately, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva Han Tae-song said the country planned to join international efforts to implement a total ban on nuclear weapons tests.
A satellite survey conducted by American researchers also showed that the regime had begun dismantling facilities at its nuclear test site.