If North Korea wanted to get America’s attention, it seems to have worked.
This week, the Kim Jong Un regime fired two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, describing them early Friday as a new type of tactical guided weapon.
Having ruled out two smaller missile tests less than a week ago, this time President Joe Biden condemned the ballistic missile launches, which violated a United Nations resolution.
“We are consulting with our allies and partners, and there will be answers,” Biden said during his first press conference as president on Thursday. “If they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly.”
Some experts believe that getting attention may have been North Korea’s goal from the start: to remind Biden of North Korea’s destructive power and to warn him to make a strong offer if negotiations are resumed.
Although Biden described North Korea as his biggest threat, it is probably not his top priority in a presidency so far dominated by the recovery from the domestic coronavirus and clashes with China on the world stage.
“North Korea’s nuclear issues will never be high on the Biden administration’s political agenda,” said Tom Plant, director of proliferation and nuclear policy at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “North Korea is doing everything it can to fix that. It wants to get noticed.”
This came straight out of Pyongyang’s playbook, which has a history of running high-profile weapons tests to send messages to new US administrations.
Its state-controlled KCNA news agency said the 2.5-ton missiles had precisely hit a target some 370 miles off its coast. South Korean officials previously said the distance was 270 miles.
Whatever the distance, it was a climb and the timing doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited South Korea and Japan, while the review of Biden’s policy on North Korea is imminent.
That review will say a lot about how your administration wants to deal with North Korea, a seemingly insoluble problem whose solution has eluded multiple presidents for decades.
The United States says it has tried in vain to establish contact with North Korea since denuclearization talks stalled under President Donald Trump. It is highly unlikely that Biden will follow the same aggressive policy adopted by his predecessor, but he has adopted a much harsher rhetorical line when it comes to Kim personally, who was praised by Trump but branded a “bully” by Biden last year.
Unlike Trump, Biden has denounced North Korea’s human rights abuses, which a UN panel has likened to atrocities committed by the Nazis. It has also called on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, something most experts say it will never do peacefully.
“I am also prepared for some form of diplomacy, but it has to be conditional on the end result of denuclearization,” Biden said Thursday.
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Watchdogs believe Pyongyang has up to 60 nuclear weapons. Some experts believe it has the ability to mount them on ICBMs that can attack the continental US.
Last week, North Korea called Biden’s approach a “cheap stunt” and said it will not speak until the United States abandons its “hostile” policy.
But North Korea needs to talk, many experts agree. The Covid-19 cocktail, widespread flooding and international sanctions have hit the already isolated and largely impoverished country, shrinking its economy and causing widespread food shortages.
Kim “needs to have some kind of dialogue with the Americans that leads to some kind of sanctions relief,” said John Nilsson-Wright, a senior fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank.
His ballistic missile display this week may be his attempt to present another type of conventional weapon he is willing to negotiate with, according to Nilsson-Wright, who also teaches international relations and Japanese politics at the University of Cambridge.
While in Seoul, Blinken called on China to use its “tremendous influence” to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.
Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said the Biden administration should “use China’s role as North Korea desperately needs China’s crude oil supply and Chinese tourists to sustain its faltering economy.”
Others say the launch wasn’t just about the US.
The 2.5-ton warhead may have been an attempt to overcome after South Korea tested its own missile last year with a 2-ton payload, according to Ankit Panda, principal investigator for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a group from Washington experts. .
“2.5 ton warhead! Someone keep up with the Joneses in the south”, Panda tweeted.
Markus Garlauskas, who until last year was the US national intelligence officer for North Korea, also disagrees that the launches were just “a cry for attention” from Washington.
He sees them as a sign of North Korea’s “clear determination to continue advancing its ballistic missile programs.” “If these are not controlled by the international community, this is likely to lead to the launch of larger and more capable systems, including those capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads,” said Garlauskas, now principal investigator of the Atlantic Council think tank.
The United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea will meet on Friday in response to the missile launches, said a spokesman for the United States Mission to the UN, as the international community weighs its response.
Alexander Smith reported from London, Stella Kim reported from Seoul and Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams reported from Washington.
Stella Kim, Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams contributed.