In an abrupt turnabout from its months-long charm offensive, North Korea protested against an ongoing US-South Korea military drill, cancelled high-level talks with the South, and threatened to "reconsider" talks with the United States - all in the span of hours yesterday.
Imperilling scheduled talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump next month, the North's Vice-Foreign Minister, Mr Kim Kye Gwan, said in a statement: "If the US is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the (US-North Korea) summit."
The apparent change of heart has raised concerns about the secretive regime's unpredictability, even as South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to keep things on track, agreeing over the phone to "continue close cooperation" on complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told Fox TV: "We're still hopeful the meeting will take place and we'll continue down that path. The President is ready if the meeting takes place and if it doesn't, we'll continue the maximum pressure campaign that has been ongoing."
North Korea's main ally, China, urged restraint, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang calling on all parties concerned to create favourable conditions for dialogue instead of escalating tension.
US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim are slated to meet in Singapore on June 12, barely two months after Mr Kim made the positive moves that culminated in his travelling south of the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas to meet South Korean President Moon Jae In.
US thanks S'pore for agreeing to be host
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has thanked Singapore for agreeing to host the unprecedented US-North Korea summit, planned to take place next month, in a telephone call with Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.
Dr Balakrishnan yesterday called Mr Pompeo, who was sworn in on April 26, to congratulate the former Central Intelligence Agency director on his new role.
Dr Balakrishnan expressed hope that the meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could contribute towards lasting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a statement yesterday.
Washington is seeking the denuclearisation of North Korea, but Pyongyang yesterday threw the summit into doubt after threatening to cancel it.
Reaffirming the longstanding ties between their two countries, Mr Pompeo yesterday also welcomed Mr Balakrishnan's upcoming visit to Washington next month, said MFA.
The mood for reconciliation remained until Pyongyang surprised Seoul officials by pulling the plug on high-level inter-Korea talks scheduled for yesterday.
North Korea's state-owned Korean Central News Agency cited the ongoing air exercise, Max Thunder, as the reason, calling it a rehearsal for invasion that defies the spirit of the Panmunjom Declaration of peace made during the Moon-Kim talks.
But Japan defended the drill as a key pillar of deterrence in the region. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura said Japan would continue to prepare for the planned US-North Korea summit while maintaining sanctions against the North.
The North's Vice-Foreign Minister singled out US National Security Adviser John Bolton for criticism, referring to suggestions by Mr Bolton that the US could use the "Libya model" for handling North Korea as "outdated policy"and an "absolutely absurd" comparison.
He urged the US to take a "sincere" approach towards improving US-North Korea ties if it wants a "deserved response".
South Korea's Reunification Ministry expressed regret over the North's unilateral decision to cancel talks, but said the government "remains strongly committed" to the Panmunjom Declaration.
The ministry also urged Pyongyang to "come out for talks as soon as possible for peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula".
Analysts said North Korea could be seeking to gain leverage ahead of Trump-Kim talks.
Dr Lee Seong Hyon, research fellow at the Sejong Institute think-tank, said North Korea was offended by the narrative in the US depicting Mr Kim as being pressured by Mr Trump to the summit. In addition, Mr Trump has not articulated what he would offer to North Korea in return for denuclearisation.
"North Korea thinks it is making all the concessions and getting nothing in return. Kim expects a highly reciprocal process. It is deemed necessary because there is very low mutual confidence between Pyongyang and Washington," he told The Straits Times.
Kobe University security expert Tosh Minohara warned North Korea against "messing with the wrong guy".
He told ST: "If these talks fail they won't be going back to square one - they will be going back to square minus five, a much more dangerous position than we were to begin with and it makes it much more likely for a military scenario."
• Additional reporting by Walter Sim in Tokyo