Major Trump Blunder Threatens US-North Korea Summit
May 17, 2018
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Phil Stewart / Reuters & CNBC
The Max Thunder US aerial exercises in South Korea were cited on Tuesday as North Korea's reason for cancelling talks with the South, and led to warnings about the US summit. Most of the world was relatively surprised that the major exercises had happened at all. Meanwhile, North Korea has a message for US President Donald Trump ahead of next month's summit: Don't listen to your new hard-line national security adviser, John Bolton.
North Korea threatens to scrap summit from CNBC.
Pentagon Tried to Keep South Korea War Games Quiet
Aerial exercises sparked heavy criticism from North Korea
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(May 16, 2018) – The Max Thunder US aerial exercises in South Korea were cited on Tuesday as North Korea's reason for cancelling talks with the South, and led to warnings about the US summit. Most of the world was relatively surprised that the major exercises had happened at all.
That's not an accident. In recent months, the Pentagon has been very unwilling to discuss anything it's doing in South Korea, and while April's exercises were known, specifics were largely gleaned from third parties. This is a major shift from the Pentagon's usual hyping of every war game they hold.
This managed to keep Max Thunder not only off the front pages, but largely out of the news entirely. The operation wasn't technically a secret, but it wasn't exactly reported either. Given its potential to inflame tensions ahead of the Kim-Trump summit, it's not surprising the Pentagon didn't want to talk about it.
All of this kept the media away from the story until North Korea responded, but it's not like it was ever going to keep North Korea from noticing large aerial exercises on their southern border. It just made North Korea's backlash a surprise to everyone, and led some in the media to act like it came out of nowhere, for no reason.
In reality, the Pentagon is being less than transparent about their operations in South Korea, which is troubling in general, but especially so if it threatens an historic opportunity for a peace treaty with North Korea.
For Pentagon, South Korea Drills
Became a Crucial but Quiet Endeavour
Phil Stewart / Reuters
WASHINGTON (May 15, 2018) -- Before North Korea's condemnation of US-South Korea military drills, even US policy wonks who follow every twist and turn of events on the Korean peninsula probably did not know much about them. That was no accident.
The Pentagon made a point of keeping the annual exercises off the front pages, even as US military leaders including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis saw them as critical to the US-South Korean alliance.
Mattis set an explicit policy of going quiet on North Korea, including on the drills, two months ago, just after US President Donald Trump signalled his willingness to hold an unprecedented meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"I do not want to talk about Korea at all," Mattis told a small group of reporters on March 10 as he flew from Washington, D.C., to the Gulf state of Oman.
On Tuesday, North Korea threw into question the summit between Trump and Kim scheduled for next month, angrily blaming the drills and calling them "an intentional military provocation," North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
The North Korean announcement upended Mattis' goal of carrying out the drills without intense media coverage. But it also appeared to affirm his concerns about drawing too much attention now to US military activity on the Korean peninsula, which has long vexed Pyongyang.
Pyongyang has viewed the US-South Korean drills as rehearsals for invasion.
In early March, South Korea's National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong said after meeting with Kim that the North Korean leader understood that "routine" joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States would continue in spite of improving relations.
This was widely seen as a major concession by North Korea as the United States seeks its denuclearization, though Pyongyang never publicly withdrew its long-standing demand for an end to the drills.
Mattis made no secret that he feared that talking about exercises could somehow complicate the work of diplomats, something that appears now to have happened regardless of the Pentagon's go-quiet approach.
"What I want you to understand is that right now every word is going to be nuanced and parsed apart across different cultures, at different times of the day, in different contexts," he told reporters in March when asked about the drills.
He said US officials directly involved in the diplomatic effort should be the ones talking about North Korea.
So, the Pentagon kicked off one of its biggest annual air combat exercises, Max Thunder, with South Korea on May 14 without even issuing a statement.
It was only when North Korea appeared to throw next month's summit into question because of the drills that the Pentagon started pulling together information for the media about them.
Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, said, "It snuck up on me."
Pollack said he only became aware of the Max Thunder drills when the KCNA statement was issued, adding, "They (the Pentagon) have been very low key about everything."
Max Thunder, one of two exercises being conducted, is an annual air combat drill at Gwangju air base involving more than 1,000 forces from South Korea and the United States.
Although KCNA described the drills as the "largest-ever," the Pentagon said they were similar in size to previous years.
"During Max Thunder, US and (South Korean) aircrews have the ability to fly missions in realistic scenarios. This type of training is integral to our ability to safeguard the Korean Peninsula together," a Pentagon spokesman said.
Max Thunder is scheduled to end on May 25 and the other exercise, Foal Eagle, is expected to run until the end of May. The summit between Trump and Kim is scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
Kim's latest move could be aimed at testing Trump's willingness to make concessions ahead of the summit, which is due to be preceded by a visit to Washington next week by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
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 him. The Chinese leader has advocated a freeze in North Korea's nuclear program in return for a freeze in US-South Korean drills.
That concession was previously ruled out by US and South Korean officials. "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.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick.
Ahead of Proposed Summit, North Korea
Rips Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton
Associated Press & CNBC
North Korea has a message for US President Donald Trump ahead of next month's summit: Don't listen to your new hard-line national security advisor, John Bolton.
(May 16, 2018) -- North Korea has a message for US President Donald Trump ahead of next month's summit: Don't listen to your new hard-line national security adviser, John Bolton.
After announcing early Wednesday that it was pulling out of high-level talks with Seoul because of a new round of US-South Korean military exercises, the North took aim at Bolton and said it might have to reconsider whether to proceed with the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because it doubts how seriously Washington actually wants peaceful dialogue.
The moves give the clearest indication yet of North Korea's mindset heading into the summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
Though North Korea has been for the most part silent about its intentions for the meeting, the announcements underscore two of its biggest concerns -- the future of the nearly 30,000 US troops in South Korea and claims coming out of Washington lately that sanctions and Trump's "maximum pressure" policy are what drove Kim to the negotiating table.
But defanging Bolton, the most militant of Trump's advisors, is now also apparently a major priority.
"We do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him," North Korea said of Bolton in a statement attributed by state-run media to senior Foreign Ministry official Kim Kye Gwan.
A hard-liner's hard-liner, Bolton was a key advisor to President George W. Bush when the US tore up a nuclear agreement with North Korea in 2002. The North conducted its first nuclear test four years later.
In August, Bolton defended the idea of a preventive military strike against the North and last month suggested negotiations in 2004 that led to the shipping of nuclear components to the US from Libya under Moammar Gadhafi would be a good model for North Korea as well.
Not surprisingly, North Korea bristles at the mention of Libya.
Gadhafi, who agreed to abandon his fledgling nuclear program, was later deposed after a 42-year reign and was killed in 2011 -- the year Kim assumed power in North Korea -- while his country spiraled into chaos.
North Korea's statement Wednesday did not directly criticize Trump, or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has made two trips to the North to lay the groundwork for the summit. Instead, it stressed that North Korea welcomes Trump's position for ending the deep-rooted hostilities between their countries and concluded that if the Trump administration approaches the summit with a sincere desire to improve relations, the result will be positive.
It warned, however, of a "ridiculous comedy" if Trump listens to Bolton and "quasi-patriots" who insist on "abandoning nuclear weapons first, compensating afterward."
"We have already stated our intention for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and made clear on several occasions that precondition for denuclearization is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States," the statement said, using the abbreviation for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"But now, the US is miscalculating the magnanimity and broad-minded initiatives of the DPRK as signs of weakness and trying to embellish and advertise as if these are the product of its sanctions and pressure," it added.
North Korea's dual moves Wednesday can be seen as an attempt by Kim to fortify his position.
In an announcement issued hours before the anti-Bolton statement, North Korea said it was pulling out of talks in the Demilitarized Zone that were supposed to be held later Wednesday with senior South Korean officials because of the military maneuvers that began earlier this week.
Annual military drills between Washington and Seoul have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, but the current exercises, called "Max Thunder," are particularly sensitive from North Korea's perspective because they reportedly involve nuclear capable B-52 bombers and F-22 stealth fighters.
The North fears the aircraft could be used to carry out a pre-emptive nuclear attack or a precision strike that would target Kim and his top lieutenants -- the kind of thing Bolton advocated publicly before taking his current office.
But Kim has already won one round of bargaining on the military front.
At South Korean President Moon Jae-in's request, Washington agreed to delay the much larger "Foal Eagle/Key Resolve" drills in the spring because of the North-South diplomacy surrounding February's Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Kim told visiting South Korean officials in March that he understood the drills would take place but expressed hope that they would be modified once the situation on the Korean Peninsula had stabilized, according to South Korea's government.
North Korea's announcement regarding the talks on Wednesday was in keeping with that position. And by playing the doves against the hawks in Seoul and Washington, it, too, might have been made with Bolton in mind.
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