Washington – North Korea fired two short-range missiles at the weekend, US and South Korean officials said, but Washington played down the first such tests under President Joe Biden and said it was still open to dialogue with Pyongyang.
The North Korean activity involved weapons systems at the low end of the spectrum that were not covered by UN Security Council testing bans, two senior officials of the Biden administration told reporters in a briefing call yesterday.
South Korea’s military said two cruise missiles were fired off North Korea’s west coast on Sunday.
Seoul had detected signs a test was imminent and was monitoring it in real time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) told reporters today. The JCS reports tests of advanced North Korean weapons such as nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles nearly in real time but not tests of lower grade, shorter range weapons.
The launch marks North Korea’s first publicly known weapons test since Biden took office in January.
But Biden downplayed the latest activity, saying “nothing much has changed.”
“No, according to the Defence Department it’s business as usual. There’s no new wrinkle in what they did,” he told reporters upon his return from a visit to Ohio, when asked if the test was a provocation.
The test came after North Korea refused to engage with repeated behind-the-scenes US diplomatic overtures by the new administration since mid-February.
The senior US officials said the Biden administration was in the “final stages” of a full review of its North Korea policy and would host the national security advisers of allies Japan and South Korea next week to discuss that.
One of the officials said there had been “very little dialogue or interaction” with North Korea since a failed summit between former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February 2019 at which the United States sought to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
“The outreach from us to North Korea follows over a year without active dialogue with North Korea, despite multiple attempts across two administrations to engage,” the second official said, while adding: “We do not see the activity that took place this weekend as closing that door.”
The Pentagon declined comment on the tests, which were first reported by the Washington Post. North Korea’s mission to the United Nations also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jenny Town, director of 38 North, a US-based website that tracks North Korea, said the North Korean action appeared “pretty mild.”
A top US general last week had warned of the near-term possibility of a far more provocative move: a decision by North Korea to begin flight testing an improved design for its inter-continental ballistic missiles.
Such a move would sharply increase tension between the United States and North Korea.
“My guess is that it has more to do with the joint exercises than anything else,” Town said of the weekend tests. “This kind of testing around the military exercises is pretty common.”
Joint US-South Korean military exercises this month angered North Korea even though they were scaled back this year to become computer-simulated drills.
A top North Korean diplomat last week said the country would never answer US diplomatic overtures until Washington dropped hostile policies and repeated calls for sanctions relief.
North Korea has maintained and developed its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes throughout 2020 in violation of international sanctions, helping fund them with some US$300 million stolen through cyber hacks, according to independent UN sanctions monitors.
Pyongyang has been subject to UN sanctions since 2006 aimed at cutting off funding for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
The weekend missile tests came just before a North Korean businessman accused by the United States of laundering money to circumvent US and UN sanctions intended to curb his country’s nuclear weapons programme appeared in a US court on Monday after extradition from Malaysia.
North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or an ICBM since 2017, but conducted repeated tests of shorter-ranges missiles after the Hanoi summit broke down. The Trump administration also sought to play down such tests. — Reuters