Max Thunder 2018: US military drills threaten to derail Korea peace talks

North Korea has called off talks with South Korea and warned the US that the Singapore summit might be next, citing ‘Max Thunder,’ a military exercise in the south featuring US strategic bombers and stealth jets.

“This exercise, targeting us, which is being carried out across South Korea, is a flagrant challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration and an intentional military provocation running counter to the positive political development on the Korean Peninsula,” the government news agency KCNA said on Tuesday.

Pyongyang also urged the US to “undertake careful deliberations about the fate” of the planned summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

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The exercise that got North Korea so wound up is Max Thunder 2018, an annual event involving dozens of US and South Korean fighters, bombers and transport aircraft. This year’s drills involve some 100 airplanes, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

Eight US F-22 stealth fighters are taking part in the exercise for the first time, as well as an unspecified number of B-52 strategic bombers based on the Pacific island of Guam. The planned show of air power “appears aimed at further pressuring the North to give up its nuclear ambitions,” according to Yonhap.

The air combat exercise is scheduled to run between May 14-25, the Pentagon said on Tuesday. Along with Foal Eagle 2018, Max Thunder is part of "recurring annual exercises" between the US forces and the Republic of Korea. The drills were postponed during the 2018 Winter Olympics, in which North and South Korea appeared jointly.

“These defensive exercises are part of the ROK-US Alliance's routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness,” the Pentagon said.

“The US will look at what North Korea has said independently, and continue to coordinate closely with our allies," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Over at the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that Washington had not received any official notice from North Korea that the Singapore summit was being canceled.

“Kim Jong Un had said previously that he understands the need and the utility of the United States and the Republic of Korea continuing in its joint exercises,” Nauert told reporters at the daily briefing. “We have not heard anything from that government or the government of South Korea to indicate that we would not continue conducting these exercises.”

The US has maintained a military presence in South Korea since the 1953 armistice froze the Korean War. Pyongyang has frequently objected to US-South Korean military drills, and demanded a moratorium on them as a precondition for any peace talks.

That objection appeared to have been dropped last month, after a South Korean delegation visited Pyongyang and said Kim “understood” Seoul’s position on organizing military drills with the Americans.

"Our stance on the joint military drills is that it is hard to postpone the exercises again or suspend them, and there is no justification for doing so. But Kim said that he understands the South's stance,” a high-level official in South Korea's presidential office told CNN.

That understanding now seems to be up in the air.

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