May 16, 2018

North Korea cancels talks

North Korea has cancelled Wednesday's high-level talks with South Korea as a reaction to its joint military exercises with the US. It has hinted that it could pull out of a planned summit with Donald Trump. 

The North's official KCNA news agency has cited that the exercises were a "provocation" and a rehearsal for an invasion. 

Background 

In 1950, North Korea, supported by China and Russia, invaded South Korea. The United Nations and US forces intervened on behalf of the South and the invading army was driven out during the Korean War. The two nations signed an armistice in 1953. 

The fates of the two regions diverged in the decades that passed. South Korea embraced market economy and became one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. Seoul became an important ally for the US in East Asia. On the other hand, North Korea favoured a totalitarian system that isolated itself from most of the world. It relied heavily on aid from China and Russia. 

In 2006, after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, the UN Security Council passed harsh economic sanctions on the region. North Korea’s nuclear program has drawn concern from the international community. In 2017, it conducted over 20 missile test launches, conducted its sixth nuclear test, and test launched at least 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

Since the beginning of 2018, global tensions with the isolated state began to ease. Pyongyang indicated that it is willing to re-establish diplomatic ties with the outside world. On April 27th, North and South Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In held a historic summit, the first in over a decade. The two nations announced that they had agreed to end the 60-year Korean War, and signed the Panmunjom Declaration which agreed to denuclearize North Korea. Pyongyang recently released three American citizens detained in North Korea in what was viewed as a gesture of goodwill ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. US President Trump is scheduled to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on June 12th in Singapore. 

Analysis 

Joint military drills between the US and South Korea have often angered the North.

In the past, they have threatened an "all-out offensive" in response to the exercises and condemned them as pouring "gasoline on fire". 

The latest drills - known as Max Thunder - involved some 100 warplanes, including an unspecified number of B-52 bombers and F-15K jets. The North has described them as a "provocation" and preparation for a future invasion, which is something they have said before. 

It said the manoeuvres represented a “flagrant challenge” to the joint declaration by Kim and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, at a summit at the “truce village” of Panmunjom on the dividing line between their countries in April. The two leaders had agreed to completely “cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea, that are the source of military tension and conflict”. 

But the US and South Korea have always insisted the drills are purely for defense purposes and based out of a mutual defense agreement they signed in 1953. They also say the exercises are necessary to strengthen their readiness in case of an external attack. 

In short, the scheduled talks with South Korea were a follow-up to the rare summit that was held on 27 April. They were agreed on earlier this week and were set to take place at Panmunjom, a military compound in the demilitarized zone between the two countries that is often referred to as the "truce town". 

Representatives had planned to discuss further details of the agreements they had made at the historic summit. This covers issues like ridding the peninsula of nuclear weapons and turning the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 into a peace treaty. Other salient agreed in a joint statement were to end “hostile activities" between the two nations, change the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into a "peace zone", reduction of arms, and to push for a four –way talk involving the US and China. 

Counterpoint 

US and South Korean officials had previously said that North Korea would accept joint military exercises and would go ahead as planned in the run-up to the Trump summit. A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Rob Manning, issued a statement insisting they were defensive in nature. 

“The purpose of the training is to enhance the ROK-US Alliance’s ability to defend the ROK and enhance interoperability and readiness. While we will not discuss specifics, the defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed,” Manning said. 

Mintaro Oba, a former state department expert on Korea, said in a tweet: “North Korea threatening to cancel things to put pressure on Seoul or Washington is about par for the course.” 

Assessment

Our assessment is that Pyongyang clearly knows how to make an explicit threat. We sense that the communiqué has been pretty circumspect and could be a play for additional leverage or to sense how the Trump team reacts. We believe that the North Korean leadership, from current satellite imagery, is following on its promise to dismantle its nuclear site at Punggye-ri. We also feel that the North Koreans must be under some pressure from the Chinese to end such joint exercises in the Korean peninsula as it would impinge on their security.

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