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The powerful sister of North Korea’s leader slammed the United States and South Korea on Tuesday over ongoing joint military drills, in the first remarks by a high-level regime official aimed at the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden.

“We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off (a gunpowder) smell in our land,” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim Yo Jong as saying. “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 warning came as the U.S. secretaries of state and defense made their first visit abroad, traveling to Tokyo for so-called two-plus-two talks with their counterparts on the alliance’s role in maintaining security in the region. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were high atop the agenda, officials said.

The two officials, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were due to visit South Korea for similar talks from Wednesday. The State Department declined comment on Kim’s remarks.

The U.S. and South Korea said the drills, which began on March 8 and were to last nine days, are “defensive” in nature and are mostly tabletop exercises and simulations that won’t involve field training, according to South Korean defense officials. The drills were scaled down due to the coronavirus risk and in a bid to keep diplomatic channels open.

Pyongyang views the exercises as a “rehearsal for invasion” and has a history of using them as a pretext for missile and other weapons tests.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department said it had reached out to Pyongyang “through several channels” starting in mid-February “ to reduce the risk of escalation.”

“To date, we have not received any response from Pyongyang,” spokesperson Jalina Porter said. “This follows over a year without active dialogue with North Korea despite several attempts by the U.S. to engage.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in poses with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Seoul in this undated photo released in February 2018. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS
South Korean President Moon Jae-in poses with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Seoul in this undated photo released in February 2018. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

The Biden team continues to undertake a government-wide review of Washington’s policy toward North Korea that U.S. officials say is due to wrap up in the coming weeks. The review is “evaluating all options to address the increased threats” posed by the North, according to the State Department.

The Biden administration’s attempts at engagement come after then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s failed attempt to coax North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to relinquish his nuclear arsenal. Trump in 2018 became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader — holding a total of three high-profile summits with Kim — only for the diplomatic gambit to end in failure after Pyongyang demanded that Washington end its “hostile policy” toward the North.

U.S. and South Korean troops regularly hold joint military exercises throughout the year, including two large-scale drills in the spring and fall, which the North regularly lambasts.

Kim Yo Jong continued this trend, with a large chunk of her statement devoted to slamming South Korea over the exercises.

“War drills and hostility can never go with dialogue and cooperation,” she said while mocking Seoul as “ridiculous, impudent and stupid” for “resorting to shrunken war games.”

“We have opposed the joint military drills targeting the compatriots but never argued about their scale or form,” she said.

Despite Pyongyang’s repeated criticism and the blowing up last year of an inter-Korean office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has staked much of his legacy on engagement that resulted in several meetings with the North Korean leader. That policy, however, has stalled as the North remained at loggerheads with the U.S. despite entreaties by Moon to return to talks.

Such a scenario “won’t come easily again,” Kim Yo Jong said, adding that the North would consider pulling out of a key inter-Korean military agreement aimed at reducing tensions along their shared border and would review dissolving a number of organizations aimed at cooperation with Seoul.

While some observers have voiced concern that North Korea could conduct a provocation such as a missile test early in the Biden administration’s term, limiting its diplomatic options, Kim Yo Jong’s statement appeared tempered to keep engagement on the table.

“The Kim regime’s rhetoric leaves more room for diplomacy than if it had welcomed Blinken and Austin with a long-range missile test,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “But North Korea’s latest threats mean the allies have precious little time to coordinate their approaches on deterrence, sanctions and engagement.”

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