Seoul – North Korea threatened a further military build-up on Saturday in response to Joe Biden’s condemnation of this week’s missile launches, a weapons test that marked Pyongyang’s first substantive provocation since the U.S. president took office.
The nuclear-armed North has a long history of using weapons tests to ramp up tensions, in a carefully calibrated process to try to forward its objectives.
Pyongyang had been biding its time since the new administration took office in Washington, not even officially acknowledging its existence until last week.
But on Thursday it launched two weapons from its east coast into the Sea of Japan.
Following the launch, Biden labeled the test a violation of U.N. resolutions and advised the isolated state against ramping up military testing, warning that “there will be responses if they choose to escalate.”
Ri Pyong Chol, a leading official in North Korea’s missile program who supervised the test, said the president’s comments had revealed his “deep-seated hostility” to the regime.
“Such remarks from the U.S. president are an undisguised encroachment on our state’s right to self-defense and provocation to it,” Ri said in a statement published by state media outlet KCNA.
Ri said Pyongyang was expressing its “deep apprehension over the U.S. chief executive faulting the regular testfire, (an) exercise of our state’s right to self-defense, as the violation of U.N. ‘resolutions.'”
“If the U.S. continues with its thoughtless remarks without thinking of the consequences, it may be faced with something that is not good,” he added, warning that North Korea was prepared to “continue to increase our most thoroughgoing and overwhelming military power.”
The comments came at a time when Washington is in the final stages of a policy review on North Korea, with signals of a firm line on denuclearization, sanctions and human rights.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said Ri’s remarks were “essentially a threat that North Korea will respond to the U.S. policy review with more tests.”
“Pyongyang is implementing a premeditated strategy of advancing military capabilities and raising tensions,” he added.
Pyongyang has made rapid progress in its capabilities under leader Kim Jong Un, testing missiles capable of reaching the entire continental United States as tensions mounted in 2017.
North Korea has reported that the Thursday launch, its first substantive affront since Biden came to office, was a test of a new “tactical guided projectile” with a solid-fuel engine.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called the two weapons launched from North Korea’s east coast ballistic missiles, which it is banned from developing under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Japan is considering extending its own sanctions against North Korea, with the aim of keeping pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize and resolve its abductions of Japanese nationals, a government source said Friday.
The sanctions include a total ban on bilateral trade and forbid the entry into Japan of North Korean-registered ships and vessels that have stopped at a North Korean port. Suga’s Cabinet plans to approve the extension in early April before the measures expire on April 13, the source added.
A U.N. sanctions committee focused on North Korea has asked its experts to investigate the test and European members of the Security Council have requested an urgent meeting to discuss North Korea.
The North is already under multiple sets of international sanctions for its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report on Friday that commercial satellite imagery showed North Korea has continued to produce uranium concentrate, used to build nuclear weapons, over the past eight months, though it has not tested any bombs since 2017.
A summit between Kim and then-U.S. president Donald Trump in Hanoi in February 2019 broke down over sanctions relief and what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in return.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said that the Biden administration may seek to impose “additional sanctions against Pyongyang” if the North continues with its military provocations.
“From now, one can expect more weapons tests from the North, and very stern responses from the U.S.,” he said.
Thursday’s launch, and an earlier test of short-range, nonballistic missiles earlier in the month, came after joint exercises by the U.S. and South Korean militaries and a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
During their trip to Seoul and Tokyo, Blinken repeatedly stressed the importance of denuclearizing North Korea, and urged Beijing — the North’s key ally — to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
But in Saturday’s statement, North Korea also slammed the South Korea-U.S. military exercises that ended last week, even though they were repeatedly scaled back to facilitate a restart of denuclearization talks with Pyongyang.
Ri said Washington insisted on a “gangster-like logic” to be able to bring strategic nuclear assets to South Korea and test intercontinental ballistic missiles at its convenience, but ban North Korea from testing even a tactical weapon.
Biden’s approach so far demonstrates a change of tone from Trump, who engaged in an extraordinary diplomatic bromance with Kim and last year repeatedly played down similar short-range launches.
Officials of the administration say they have sought to reach out to Pyongyang through several channels but have received no response so far.
“Kim Jong Un intends to use provocations to demand concessions but may end up increasing international resolve for North Korea’s denuclearization,” Easley said.
The White House, which said its North Korea policy review was in the “final stages,” declined to comment. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When asked earlier about the launch and whether it would affect the policy review, department spokeswoman Jalina Porter again condemned the test as “destabilizing.”
“North Korea’s unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs constitute serious threats to international peace and security,” she told a regular news briefing.
“I can’t underscore enough that the president and his security team are continuing to assess the situation and one of our greatest priorities right now is ensuring that we’re on the same page as our allies and partners.”
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