North Korea conducts first missile test since Biden took office
North Korea conducted a short-range missile test over the weekend, the first such launch since President Biden’s inauguration two months ago.
In a background call with reporters Tuesday, two senior administration officials confirmed North Korea tested a “short-range system” over the weekend, but declined to provide additional details.
The officials downplayed the test as “normal military activity” by North Korea, saying the weapons system was not one that is covered by United Nations sanctions.
“North Korea has a familiar menu of provocations when it wants to send a message to a U.S. administration, ballistic missiles of various range, mobile- and submarine-launched platforms, nuclear and thermonuclear tests. Experts rightly recognized what took place last weekend as falling on the low-end of that spectrum,” one of the officials said.
“Almost every kind of activity, missile, nuclear activity, is covered by U.N. Security Council resolutions, and so because this it does not, it probably gives you an indication of where it falls on the spectrum of concern,” added the other official. “We do not believe that it is in our best interest to hype these things in circumstances in which we would consider those activities as part of a ‘normal’ set of a tense military environment like we see on the Korean peninsula.”
When asked about the missile test, Biden told reporters, “We have learned that nothing much has changed.”
The test was first reported by The Washington Post.
North Korea has been expected to conduct some sort of missile launch for weeks. It is typical for Pyongyang to test a new U.S. administration with some sort of provocation, and U.S. officials, lawmakers and experts have been warning for weeks the country could soon conduct a weapons test.
Additionally, North Korea last week complained about joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and issued a warning to the Biden administration over the drills.
“We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off powder smell in our land,” Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, said in a statement carried by state news agency KCNA. “If it wants to sleep in peace for [the] coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
The annual spring U.S.-South Korean military exercises had already been scaled back over concerns related both to COVID-19 and provoking North Korea.
The Biden administration is in the midst of a review of its North Korean policy, but has already tried to reach out to Pyongyang for talks.
The administration has not gotten a direct response from North Korea, but in a statement carried by state media last week, Choe Son Hui, the first foreign minister, rejected talks until the United States “rolls back its hostile policy” toward Pyongyang.
In Tuesday’s call with reporters, one of the Biden administration officials said they do not see the recent weapons test as “closing that door” to diplomacy with North Korea.
The administration is in the “final stages” of its North Korea review, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan is scheduled to host his South Korean and Japanese counterparts for a meeting next week to discuss the outcomes, officials on the call said.
The meeting comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled together to South Korea and Japan last week, when North Korea was a topic of discussion.
North Korea also came up at a tense meeting Blinken and Sullivan held with Chinese officials in Alaska last week.
Pyongyang, particularly its nuclear weapons program, has vexed decades of U.S. administrations.
Former President Trump held two summits with Kim and exchanged what he referred to as “love letters” with the North Korean leader.
But the personal diplomacy did not yield a denuclearization agreement, and North Korea has instead advanced its weapons program. Still, the country has refrained from nuclear tests, as well as intercontinental ballistic missile tests, since Kim’s first summit with Trump.
The Biden administration’s North Korea review has included conversations with Trump administration officials about their diplomatic efforts. One of the Biden administration officials on Tuesday’s call characterized the conversations as “polite and respectful,” saying “they helped us understand what some of the contours and challenges that they’d faced” were.
“We are under no illusions about the difficulty this task presents to us,” the official said. “We have a long history of disappointment in diplomacy with North Korea. It’s defied expectations of Republican and Democratic administrations alike. We’ve had working groups. We’ve tried it at the highest levels of the head of state.
“And all the while we’ve seen North Korea proceed ahead accordingly,” the official added. “The situation is also more challenging in Northeast Asia. You’ve got more tensions between Japan and South Korea, and of course U.S.-China relations are heading into a complex period. All of those reasons underscore why the United States engaging effectively with respect to the North Korean challenge is so important as we go forward.”
Updated at 7:14 p.m.
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