By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas
North Korea’s abrupt announcement on 16 May that it would not go through with high-level North-South talks that day, and that the US-North Korea summit may be in jeopardy, showed how quickly circumstances can change on the Korean Peninsula. While this contretemps may be on the way to resolution, it is important to realise what provoked North Korea’s ire and how fragile diplomacy can be.
When Pyongyang threatened to cancel the summit over the ‘military provocation’ of the Max Thunder air combat drills that are scheduled to run from 14–25 May, Washington reacted with perplexity. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert noted quizzically that Kim Jong-un had said he understood the need for the US and the Republic of Korea to continue their joint exercises. The Pentagon said Max Thunder ‘is part of the ROK-US alliance routine annual training program’.
In suddenly drawing a line in the sand over the exercise, it seems that Kim is either having second thoughts or using Trump’s keen interest in summit pageantry to gain leverage to promote the North’s longstanding aim of US troop withdrawal. I even wondered if Kim’s earlier smile diplomacy was being challenged by disgruntled generals in Pyongyang.
It was not so much the air combat exercise itself that got North Korea’s goat, however; it was the aircraft involved. The 100 aircraft taking part in the drill were to include B-52 bombers as well as F-22 stealth fighters. North Korea always raises a furore over visits to South Korea by such aircraft, the former because they are nuclear capable and the latter because of their capability to conduct ‘decapitation’ strikes. These aircraft are a very visible demonstration of America’s ability to, in Trump’s words last August, rain ‘fire and fury’ on North Korea ‘the likes of which this world has never seen before’.
A few hours after North Korea’s protest, a source told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that while the F-22s had already participated in the air manoeuvres, the B-52s may not join in after all. This would be wise.
The question remains though, why the B-52s and F-22s were scheduled to be in the exercise to begin with. They were not included in last year’s Max Thunder drill, nor in last month’s larger Foal Eagle combined training. In other words, this year’s Max Thunder was not ‘routine’. With diplomacy blooming and arrangements in train for a summit less than a month away, why rock the boat?
Maybe it was just a screw up. Given the number of missing pieces in the US government at present, mistakes are bound to be more frequent. More likely, however, some Trump Administration tough guy(s) deemed the B-52 flyovers to be a useful signal to North Korea that America was not going soft, as some commentators have been suggesting. Max Thunder was a way of showing that maximum pressure was still in play. The point was to pressure North Korea to make concrete concessions in meeting the US goal of ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement’ (CVID) of the nuclear programme.
If so, the tactic backfired when the North Koreans showed that they, too, can play this game. They must have already been irritated by Trump’s triumphalist tone about having coerced Kim into agreeing to give up his nuclear weapons. Kim’s response showed that for North Korea, the goal of ‘denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula’ as announced at his Panmunjom summit with Moon on 27 April, means removal of the US nuclear ‘threat’ associated with South Korea. Bringing B-52s to the peninsula is the very manifestation of that perceived threat.
Driving home the point, a few hours after North Korea’s initial announcement on 16 May, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan, a veteran America hand, said the summit is in jeopardy if the US continues to insist on North Korea unilaterally giving up its nuclear programme and citing Libya as a model, as National Security Advisor John Bolton repeatedly suggests.
Bolton’s tactics overshadow the more appealing message being promoted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who enthusiastically describes the economic benefits that CVID could bring the North. The US surely can keep up maximum pressure without rubbing Kim’s nose in it.