SEOUL - North Korea has criticized U.S. plans to hold a joint military exercise next month with South Korea, suggesting the drills could negatively impact upcoming working-level nuclear talks with Washington.
In a statement from the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said the exercise violates an agreement reached last year by Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
“We will look at the future moves of the United States, and we will make a decision regarding the holding of working-level talks,” said the statement attributed to an unnamed North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
The U.S. and North Korea agreed to hold working-level talks following a hastily arranged meeting last month between Trump and Kim at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.
That meeting helped restart talks that had broken down over disagreements on how to pace sanctions relief with steps to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
At their first summit in Singapore last June, Trump and Kim agreed to work “toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” But neither side can agree on what that phrase means or how to begin working toward it.
In Singapore, Trump also agreed to scale back U.S. military exercises with South Korea. But North Korea still regularly complains about the smaller exercises.
The exercise scheduled for next month is called “Dong Maeng,” or “alliance” in English. The drill will replace the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise that was scaled back as part of the Trump-Kim talks.
A statement earlier in the day from the North's foreign ministry suggested that if the U.S. goes ahead with the exercises, Pyongyang could resume intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
"Our decision to suspend nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests or the U.S. decision to suspend joint military drills was a pledge to improve bilateral relations, not some kind of legislated document carved on paper," the statement said, according to a translation by South Korea's official Yonhap news agency.
The statement said the drills would be a "clear violation of the basic spirit" of the declaration signed by Kim and Trump in Singapore.
North Korea views U.S.-South Korea military exercises as preparation to invade. U.S. officials have called the drills necessary to deter North Korean attacks. Trump often dismisses the exercises as “war games” and says they are a waste of money.
Trump last month became the first sitting U.S. president to visit North Korea, when he briefly stepped across the military demarcation line at the Panmunjom truce village in the DMZ.
White House officials have portrayed that meeting as historic and an example of Trump’s successful outreach to Kim. Many observers say it risks becoming a stunt, unless accompanied by progress in working-level talks.
In an interview Monday with Fox News, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the DMZ meeting “has given us another chance to sit down” with North Korean officials and “have another conversation.”
“I hope the North Koreans will come to the table with ideas that they didn’t have the first time. We hope we can be a little more creative too,” said Pompeo, who on June 30th said he hoped the working-level talks could resume in two to three weeks.
Trump and other U.S. officials have at times said they will not relax sanctions until North Korea gives up all its nuclear weapons. At other times, White House officials signal they are open to a more gradual approach.
A State Department spokesperson last week said the U.S. wants a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear program at the start of the process, but dismissed a report in The New York Times suggesting the U.S. was moving towards tacitly accepting North Korea as a nuclear state.
In his Monday interview, Pompeo said Trump’s “mission hasn’t changed: to fully and finally denuclearize North Korea in a way that we can verify.”
Kim wants substantial U.S. sanctions relief in exchange for partial steps to give up his nuclear program. In Hanoi, he offered to dismantle what is thought to be his main nuclear complex in Yongbyon in exchange for the removal of nearly all sanctions.
The North Korean leader has said he will give the U.S. until the end of the year to become more accommodating. U.S. officials have shrugged off the deadline.