After loudly denouncing joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that ended last week, North Korea has challenged President Joe Biden with the first missile tests of his administration.
North Korea conducted short-range missile tests last weekend, according to The Washington Post, while the Biden team was in the midst of a review of North Korea policy. When complete, the review is likely to include demands for North Korea to give up its nuclear warheads and do away with its terrible violations of human rights—including public executions, torture and long-term imprisonment in a vast gulag system for those suspected of working against the regime of Kim Jong Un.
U.S. officials confirmed the North Koreans had fired at least one, maybe two, missiles but did not say whence it was fired or where it landed. Nor, for that matter, did they identify the type of missile, much less say how high or how far it went.
Kim ordered the missile tests despite his recent focus on economic reform measures for a country hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and UN and U.S. economic sanctions. For weeks, intelligence analysts have reported activity at the North’s main nuclear site at Yongbyon, 65 miles north of Pyongyang, and also at test sites elsewhere.
The report of the missile shots came after Kim exchanged messages with China’s President Xi Jinping stressing “the need to strengthen the unity and cooperation between the two parties and two countries to cope with the hostile forces’ all-round challenges and obstructive moves,” said Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency.
That dialog followed contentious talks in Anchorage between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, foreign affairs chief of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Blinken faced off against Yang after he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met their opposite numbers in Seoul and pressed for much closer cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea on North Korea.
U.S. analysts have long forecast that Kim would order missile tests to get the attention of Biden and intimidate President Moon, whom North Korea has excoriated in recent statements for bending to the U.S. by agreeing to joint war game exercises.
Moon, opposed to a tough policy vis-a-vis North Korea, is pressing the U.S. to ease sanctions on providing food and medical aid to North Korea. The South’s unification minister, Lee In-young, according to Yonhap News, urged “humanitarian cooperation” in order to “substantially improve the North’s human rights situation” and “open the door.” South Korea, he said, should assist the North “as much as our capacity allows.”
During the latest military exercises, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, said it would be “a waste of time to sit with the U.S. as it is not ready to feel and accept new change and new times.” Meanwhile, she vowed her government would “keep tabs on all the ill deeds the new regime in the U.S. is engrossed in.”
U.S. officials are not terrifically worried about tests of short or mid-range missiles, which North Korea continued to test while Donald Trump was president before and after his three meetings with Kim Jong Un in 2018 and 2019. The concern, however, is that North Korea is preparing to test a long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a warhead to targets in the U.S.
Kim has not ordered a long-range missile test since November 2017, several months before engaging in talks first with Moon and then, in Singapore in June 2018, with Trump.
Georgetown professor Victor Cha, who worked with the National Security Council during the George W. Bush presidency, told The Daily Beast that he doubted Biden would be interested in engaging in summit diplomacy with Kim, “especially if North Korea carries out missile tests.” It was not that Biden was “against the idea in principle,” he said, but talks “must be grounded in expert working-level discussions.”
Still, Cha explained, “it would not surprise me if the administration authorized talks initially to take a pulse of what the North Koreans are thinking, and to avoid an early crisis as both Trump and Obama experienced.”
The latest tests, short-range though they may be, may be a precursor of just that sort of crisis.
“Pyongyang has typically engaged in highly provocative behavior such as a nuclear or missile test early in the new U.S. and South Korean administration,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now with the Heritage Foundation. “Pyongyang believes doing so provides leverage against their opponents, though it has sometimes led to a stronger policy response than the regime anticipated.”
“Kim will try and do something to get Biden’s attention,” Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence analyst at the Defense Department and author of numerous books and articles on North Korea’s leadership, told The Daily Beast. “North Korea has done it with every other President since Clinton.” Bechtol also cited the possibility of incidents along the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas or in the Yellow Sea.
Or, he added, the supreme leader may do “something we have not thought of,” a sardonic reference to numerous incidents over the years that have caught the Americans and South Koreans by surprise.