North Korea fired several missiles just days after a visit to the region by the top US defence and diplomatic officials, the White House said on March 23, in Pyongyang’s first overt challenge to the Biden administration.
But administration officials, speaking anonymously, downplayed the missiles as “common” military testing and said they would not block Washington’s efforts to engage with North Korea on denuclearisation.
Two missiles were fired on March 21, they confirmed, echoing Pyongyang’s past practices for provoking and testing both Washington and Seoul.
But they were short-range, non-ballistic missile systems that do not fall under UN security council resolutions banning more threatening weapons, a senior US administration official told reporters.
It was nothing like the nuclear weapon tests or ballistic missile launches that Pyongyang has used to provoke previous US governments, the official said, adding: “What we saw this weekend does not fall in that category . . . It is common practice for North Korea to test various systems . . . We do not respond to every kind of test.”
The launches came just days after US top diplomat Antony Blinken and defence chief Lloyd Austin visited Japan and South Korea to discuss their alliance and security issues in the region, with nuclear-armed North Korea seen as a central threat.
Their visit also followed March 8-17 joint exercises by US and South Korean defence forces.
While Blinken and Austin were in Seoul on March 18, North Korean first vice-foreign minister Choe Son-hui accused the US of a “lunatic theory of ‘threat from North Korea’ and groundless rhetoric about ‘complete denuclearisation’”.
President Joe Biden’s two-month-old administration hopes to reignite negotiations with the Kim Jong-un regime on its nuclear arsenal after efforts by the previous regime of Donald Trump stalled.
Initial outreach from Washington to Pyongyang has turned up empty, but US officials are hopeful they can reconnect, while working in coordination with allies Japan and South Korea.
Trump met with Kim twice, in Singapore and Vietnam, with both sides heralding a breakthrough in relations.
But even as the US pulled back on some joint training activities with South Korea’s military and the North froze ballistic missile tests, after the February 2019 Trump-Kim Hanoi summit communications between the two sides dried up.
Biden officials are now finalising a strategy to restart talks that the White House will discuss with Japanese and South Korean security officials next week, the administration official said.
“We have taken efforts and we will continue to take efforts” to communicate, the official said.
But the official added that Pyongyang cannot expect concessions – such as cutting back on bilateral military exercises – from Biden.
“The hope of diplomacy really rests on the reality of deterrence and our forward-deployed capabilities,” the official said.
“So we thought that some of the efforts that were taken previously to turn off necessary exercises were actually antithetical to our position.”