The world heaved at least a small sigh of relief when US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un agreed to their historic meeting in Singapore on 12 June but, suddenly, it appears to hang in the balance.
On May 11, the US and South Korea began joint military exercises extending over two weeks and dubbed “Max Thunder” which both claim are purely for defence purposes. They are based on the agreement the two countries signed in 1953 after the armistice that ended of hostilities on the Korean peninsula and is a regular annual event.
Then, suddenly, five days later North Korea claimed that the exercises were a “provocation” and a rehearsal for an invasion and cancelled a scheduled meeting with South Korean officials that had been set for the following day.
That scheduled meeting had been agreed to by Kim Jong-un and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in when they met on 27 April and was intended to discuss follow-up issues on everything from ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons to organising the reunion of families divided by the war.
North Korea’s official news agency announced, “This exercise, targeting us, which is being carried out across South Korea, is a flagrant challenge to the Panmunjon Declaration and an international military provocation running counter to the positive political development on the Korean peninsula.”
It continued, “The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-US summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities."
The US State Department in the immediate aftermath of the North Korean announcement said it had no information from North Korea about any threat to cancel the 12 June summit and was continuing to plan for it.
Until this sudden move by the ever unpredictable North Korean regime everything seemed to be sweetness, light and optimism.
North Korea had announced that it would dismantle its Punggye-ri nuclear test ground between 23 May and 25 May and it seems that this had already begun according to satellite images. The North Koreans had announced that the dismantlement would be witnessed by invited foreign journalists and would involve “collapsing all its tunnels with explosions, blocking all entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts.”
This announcement was treated with some reserve as independent expert nuclear inspectors were not invited. It is understood that this site has been used for six underground nuclear test explosions.
However what the North Koreans have been doing on the site could well be more apparent than real.
There is a strong suspicion that the site is already mostly useless as a result of underground nuclear explosions, particularly the massive bomb detonated in September last year. There had been reports that hundreds of workers at the site had been killed by four earthquakes touched off by the bomb.
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