WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- After recent diplomatic moves to reaffirm China's support, Pyongyang has upped the ante just weeks ahead of the planned summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
For now, the U.S. side has played down the Kim regime's threats to pull out of the meeting, saying that preparations were moving ahead.
Trump, however, acknowledged on Wednesday that it was unclear if the summit would go ahead. "We'll have to see," he told reporters in the Oval Office. "No decision, we haven't been notified at all," he added.
National Security Adviser John Bolton said he believed the odds remained in favor of the summit taking place as scheduled on June 12. "We are going to do everything we can to come to a successful meeting," he told Fox News Radio. "But we are not going to back away from the objective of that meeting, which is complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization."
North Korea, possibly emboldened by its revived relations with China, has turned on the offensive, criticizing the use of B-52 bombers in military drills conducted by the U.S. and South Korea.
The drills were "an undisguised challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration and a deliberate military provocation to the trend of the favorably developing situation on the Korean Peninsula," the North's Korean Central News Agency reported, in reference to the agreement between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27.
In response, Moon Chung-in, special adviser to President Moon, said Wednesday that B-52 strategic bombers would not be deployed to the Korean Peninsula for the exercises. The decision to downscale the drills was reached between U.S. Forces Korea Commander Vincent Brooks and South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo on Wednesday.
U.S. officials remained optimistic that a summit with North Korea will go ahead even after Pyongyang threatened to "reconsider," but the White House issued its own warning that pulling out would not bring relief from international sanctions.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Fox News that the administration is "still hopeful that the meeting will take place, and we'll continue down that path," adding that Pyongyang's response "is not something that is out of the ordinary."
If the summit falls through, Sanders said, "we'll continue the maximum pressure campaign that's been ongoing."
North Korea abruptly called off high-level talks with South Korea scheduled for Wednesday in response to the drills, calling them preparations for war.
Pyongyang is likely emboldened by its recent diplomatic successes, steadily improving its ties with Seoul this year through a series of high-level meetings and the summit between Moon and Kim.
More importantly, China now seems to be squarely back in North Korea's corner. "All relevant parties shall demonstrate goodwill to each other" and "avoid provocative actions that will trigger tension," Chinese Foreign Ministry Lu Kang told reporters Wednesday, defending the North's response to the drills.
China and North Korea are also in tune over "phased denuclearization," a step-by-step approach that Pyongyang favors but that the U.S. and Japan worry is simply playing for time.
Some believe Kim is putting on a show of defiance to fend off critics in the military and party leadership. Other experts, however, say that North Korea would not throw away the chance for direct talks with the U.S., which it has been seeking for years.
An unpredictable Trump, with his talk about the possibility of military strikes, posed the biggest risk for a North Korean regime fearing for its survival. But after new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang last week and gave Kim assurances that the White House was not seeking regime change, state media reported that a "satisfactory agreement" on a summit had been reached.
North Korea's threat to pull out of those talks may simply show that Kim now feels confident enough to push for a better deal. Pyongyang's railing against the Max Thunder drills suggests it is particularly eager to see the U.S. scale back its military presence in the Korean Peninsula.
The Max Thunder drills, which began on May 11 and will run until May 24, are usually held around the same time as the joint "Foal Eagle" and "Key Resolve" exercises in March or April. There was a gap this year out of consideration for North Korea.