North Korea Fires Cruise Missiles in First Such Test Since July
A North Korean flag flies at the Embassy of North Korea compound in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photographer: Samsul Said/Bloomberg)

North Korea Fires Cruise Missiles in First Such Test Since July

North Korea fired off a pair of cruise missiles on the heels of an Asian trip by top U.S. officials, putting a fresh spotlight on Biden administration deliberations over how to resolve a key security dilemma.

The two missiles were fired from South Pyongan province Sunday morning and flew over the sea between the peninsula and China, the South Korean Defense Ministry said Wednesday. Earlier, U.S. officials in Washington had confirmed the test of a “short-range system,” adding that the incident didn’t appear to violate a United Nations ban on ballistic missile launches by the country.

While launching cruise missiles isn’t prohibited by UN resolutions, Kim Jong Un had refrained from such provocations since testing an anti-ship weapons system in July. The move came days after U.S. officials led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken huddled with South Korean counterparts in Seoul as part of President Joe Biden’s effort to craft a strategy for rolling back North Korea’s nuclear program.

The decision to withhold news of the launch until after the Washington Post reported it Tuesday was consistent with efforts under former President Donald Trump to avoid being drawn into another crisis with North Korea. Trump had often sought to play down such launches, including tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that violate UN resolutions and pose a more serious threat to American troops and U.S. allies in Japan and South Korea.

Asked about the launch during a trip to Ohio, Biden said only that he had learned that “nothing much has changed,” without elaborating. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will host his counterparts from Japan and South Korea next week to discuss North Korea as part of broader administration efforts to craft a coordinated strategy toward North Korea.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato declined to comment on the incident Wednesday. “We will continue to cooperate closely with the U.S. and South Korea to gather and analyze information on North Korea’s military activities, while doing all we can to stay on the alert,” Kato said in Tokyo.

The Biden administration’s policy review has included talks with former Trump officials. Those discussions included an acknowledgment that following Trump’s second summit with Kim in February 2019, there had been very little communication with the North Korean regime, the current U.S. officials said Tuesday.

Kim has continued to expand and upgrade his nuclear weapons program, despite agreeing to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” during his unprecedented first meeting with Trump in 2018. Since talks broke down, he has engaged in a sporadic series of provocations, blowing up a liaison office build by South Korea last year and parading a new intercontinental ballistic missile through Pyongyang in October.

Pyongyang has recently stepped up its criticism of Washington, with Kim reiterating that U.S. was his “biggest main enemy” in January and a top diplomat last week calling Biden’s outreach for talks a “time-delaying trick.” Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping in recent days reaffirmed the need to improve ties, as both neighbors face the prospect of a renewed push by American allies.

North Korea needs to resume talks with the U.S. to get out from under crushing UN sanctions that have helped push its economy toward what outside observers believe is the worst downturn in two decades. Kim appears to seeking a way to draw concessions from the administration without provoking more penalties from the international community.

Blinken shrugged off North Korean criticism during his visit to Seoul last week, saying the U.S. was focused on consulting partners to draft policy plans.

“There are different kinds of pressure points that might convince North Korea to make progress,” Blinken said after meeting South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-young and Defense Minister Suh Wook. “The goal is to really figure out how we have the best chance in resolving the challenges posed by North Korea to us and unfortunately to its own people.”

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