The United States' relationship with North Korea might just be on thin ice leading up to President Trump's scheduled talk with Kim Jong Un in June. This is all because of an 11-day joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea, which started last week. North Korea's problem with the Max Thunder Drills is a bit surprising, though, since they're an annual military routine that have been occurring consistently for decades. But this year Kim is taking special offense to the exercises, threatening to pull out of the scheduled talks with the United States as a result. So yeah, nuclear disarmament might not be as simple as this administration originally claimed it would be.
According to The New York Times, North Korea spontaneously canceled high-level conversations with South Korea that were planned to occur in Pyongyang this week, and threatened further withdrawal (including the talks with President Trump, scheduled to occur in Singapore) if the "attitudes" of the countries didn't change.
In a statement from the North Korean Central News Agency, the Max Thunder Drills were accused as being practice for an invasion. The statement continued, "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."
This situation is pretty strange for several reasons. First, the Max Thunder Drills have occurred in the past, and have been publicly scheduled to occur this week for a while. That's part of the reason why it's so confusing that North Korea would suddenly view it as a provocation, rather than a planned military exercise.
To BuzzFeed News, Colonel Rob Manning spoke on behalf of the Pentagon, describing the Max Thunder Drills as "recurring", "annual", and "routine." He added that the goals of these drills had nothing to do with a planned attack and everything to do with maintaining "a foundation of early readiness."
The sudden and aggressive reaction by North Korea is also bizarre because of its swift departure from what looked like an increasing desire by Kim to forge strands of communication with the United States. For the last several months, North Korea has been unusually communicative and cooperative with the United States. Kim, for instance, has agreed to meet with President Trump in person, and released three American prisoners who had been detained in work camps.
But according to the White House, the most recent turn of events isn't cause for alarm — at least, not yet.
CNN reported that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said nothing about canceling the June meeting between President Trump and Kim. "The United States will look at what North Korea has said independently, and continue to coordinate closely with our allies," Sanders said.
What's more, there's no reason to believe that the Max Thunder Drills won't continue as planned, as neither the United States nor South Korea has made any statement suggesting the postponement or canceling of the annual drills. The bigger thing to worry about here is what this might mean for the upcoming meeting in Singapore, because some officials are suggesting that this whole freak-out by North Korea is one big psychological strategy.
To CNN, Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that this move by Kim isn't exactly original: the leader might be working from the "Kim Jong II playbook," Ruggiero suggested, adding that this erratic and aggressive act might just be a way to gain leverage in the meeting with the United States. By raising the hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough, then canceling the talks in Pyongyang, Kim might be setting himself up to push for more concessions during the Singapore meeting.
Other experts believe that Kim might just be pushing President Trump to prove how badly he wants this meeting. Ankit Panda, an expert on North Korea, echoed that theory when he tweeted that this could be a strategy to "test how badly Trump wants the summit."
Since the Max Thunder Drills have yet to be canceled, there's no knowing how President Trump will choose to respond to this slight, or how South Korea will respond to the cancelled talks.
The exercise (which is two weeks long) started last Friday. According to Yonhap News Agency, there were 100 warplanes involved, including B-52 bombers, F-15K jets, and F-22 radar-evading fighters.