North Korea warned the United States on Sunday not to misread peace overtures as a sign of weakness, accusing the Trump administration of deliberately provoking Pyongyang with tough talk and a show of military strength.
"It would not be conducive to addressing the issue if the U.S. miscalculates the peace-loving intention of the DPRK (North Korea) as a sign of 'weakness' and continues to pursue its pressure and military threats," a spokesman for the North Korean foreign ministry told the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The criticism came weeks before a much-anticipated summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It also came after last month's historic meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
At that meeting, Kim pledged to work toward denuclearizing the peninsula and to dismantle his nuclear missile testing site. He also agreed to move his nation's clocks forward by 30 minutes to correspond to South Korea's time zone, an action that took place Saturday.
Despite the gains, the North Korean spokesman on Sunday accused the Trump administration of misleading the public by claiming Pyongyang is motivated by fear of U.S. military strength and concerns about aggressive economic sanctions put in place because of the North's nuclear and missile programs.
Movement of U.S. military assets into the region and talk of human rights violations also have hurt the process, the spokesman said. South Korea's Yonhap news agency suggested the military assets include eight U.S. F-22 stealth fighter jets recently sent to participate in the annual joint South Korea-U.S. air training.
"This act cannot be construed otherwise than a dangerous attempt to ruin the hard-won atmosphere of dialogue and bring the situation back to square one," the spokesman said.
A thaw in relations between the two nations in recent weeks drew international optimism that a deal to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula could be struck.
The relative warmth between the two leaders even prompted talk that three Americans held by North Korea might soon be released. Last week, Trump tweeted that the Obama administration had "long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail. Stay tuned!"
Even amid the excitement, many experts had warned that much work remained before real diplomatic progress could take shape.
Jay Lefkowitz, who served as President George W. Bush's special envoy on human rights in North Korea, acknowledged that the release of the prisoners could be seen as a "confidence-building measure" heading into the summit.
"That said, with hundreds of thousands of political prisoners held in brutal prison camps across North Korea, it’s much too early to have any confidence that the upcoming talks will lead to a radical transformation in North Korea or to a genuine warming of its relations with the United States," Lefkowitz told USA TODAY.
Still, Moon and Kim have agreed to work on a plan to formally end the Korean War that was halted by a temporary armistice in 1953. Kim has said a formal end to the hostilities, along with a pledge from the U.S. not to attack his nation, would essentially eliminate Pyongyang's need for a nuclear arsenal.
"The U.S. is misleading the public opinion, arguing as if the DPRK's clarification of its intention for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula ... is the result of so-called sanctions and pressure," the spokesman said Sunday.