The revelation Wednesday of North Korea’s test of two short-range missiles over the weekend could be the start of a fresh cycle of provocations, potentially putting Washington in a tough spot as it prepares to brief allies in Tokyo and Seoul on a soon-to-conclude review of U.S. policy toward Pyongyang.
U.S. officials said North Korea had tested the “short-range system,” but characterized the tests as falling on the low end of the threat spectrum, saying the military activity was not in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions over its ballistic missile program.
“It is a normal part of the kind of testing that North Korea would do,” a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “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.”
U.S. President Joe Biden, who has promised to engage in “principled diplomacy” with North Korea, also played down the tests on Tuesday in Ohio.
“We have learned that nothing much has changed,” Biden said in response to a question about the missile test. “According to the Defense Department it’s business as usual. There’s no new wrinkle in what they did.”
The U.S. did not offer further details of what exactly was tested, but the South Korean military said Wednesday that two cruise missiles were fired off North Korea’s west coast Sunday into the Yellow Sea, the Yonhap news agency reported. Seoul said it had detected signs a test was imminent and was monitoring it in real time, the country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
The launches were the North’s first known missile tests since April 14 last year, when it lobbed what were believed to be multiple short-range cruise missiles into the Sea of Japan ahead of the birthday of the country’s late founder, Kim Il Sung.
North Korea usually publicizes its weapons tests as a way of trumpeting its military prowess, and it was unclear why it chose not to this time. The delay also raised questions over why the U.S. and its allies had not immediately announced the test-firings.
Asked about this, another senior U.S. official said that while the U.S. did not want to speak for its allies, “their posture, related to the events of this weekend, suggests that they see this the same way that we do.”
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the top government spokesman, said Japan was watching the issue “with great interest,” but declined to give further details, adding that it would continue to work closely with the United States and South Korea on North Korea’s military activities.
The launches reportedly came on Sunday, in the wake of key meetings in Tokyo and Seoul by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with their Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
Pyongyang has not launched a long-range missile since November 2017, though it has continued to bolster its shorter-range capabilities through a spate of tests in recent years that were largely ignored by the administration of Biden’s predecessor.
Those shorter-range launches had stoked concern in Tokyo, which feared ignoring them freed the North up to develop increasingly sophisticated weapons platforms that could threaten Japan. South Korea, meanwhile, has largely focused under President Moon Jae-in on engaging with the North Koreans despite the tests.
“North Korea’s recent missile tests may be part of their regular military exercise schedule, but are still a worrying sign that Pyongyang could be starting a new provocation cycle,” Leif-Eric Easley, a North Korea expert and professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said of the weekend tests.
But Jenny Town, director of the North Korea-watching website 38 North, said it was unwise to characterize the latest weapons test as a provocation, considering the conclusion last week of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea.
“These kinds of military movements are pretty common around the time of U.S.-ROK joint military exercises,” Town said, using the acronym for South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea. “I don’t think the administration … is ‘playing it down’ in this case.”
U.S. officials stressed that diplomacy remains an option with the North Koreans.
“We believe that such diplomacy — in close coordination with South Korea and Japan and, frankly, with China — is in the best interests of all those concerned,” the first senior official said. “We don’t want a situation where it’s perceived that our door is not open to talk.”
The two officials said the U.S. policy review was close to wrapping up, adding that national security adviser Jake Sullivan will brief Washington’s two Northeast Asian allies next week on the issue.
“We are in the final stages of that review, and next week we plan to host the national security advisers of Japan and the Republic of Korea to discuss the outcomes and other issues,” they said, noting that the meeting would last about a day.
Kato confirmed that planning for the meeting was in the final stages, saying national security adviser Shigeru Kitamura would represent Japan, but declined further details.
Tetsuo Kotani, an expert on international security at Meikai University, said the test of the short-range system would raise eyebrows in Japan, but that “Tokyo’s priority is to input Japan’s concern and interest in the new U.S. policy toward North Korea.”
Blinken has said that the review will lead to a “new” U.S. approach to the nuclear-armed nation, though the secretary of state and other top American officials have said they will still pursue the “denuclearization of North Korea” — tougher phrasing preferred by Japan over the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” currently favored by both Koreas.
Observers have said that the Biden administration could seek to manage the nuclear threat from Pyongyang rather than eliminate it.
Some observers say such a move could trigger worries in Japan, as it would essentially force Tokyo to live with the nuclear threat from its neighbor. Japan is home to a spate of U.S. military bases, and the North has conducted a number of military exercises intended to demonstrate that it would target those sites in the event of a conflict.
So far, the Biden administration has attempted to reach out to North Korea through a variety of channels since mid-February. Pyongyang has not directly responded, though a top regime official said recently that it would continue to ignore U.S. overtures until Washington ends its so-called hostile policy toward the country.
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.
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