North Korea fires more rockets in latest challenge to Biden

Missiles reached altitude of 60km before crashing into the sea outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone

Television screens show file footage of North Korea’s missile test. Photograph: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty

Television screens show file footage of North Korea’s missile test. Photograph: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty

 

North Korea has conducted its second significant weapons test in the past week, raising one of the first big foreign policy challenges for President Joe Biden and US allies.

The North Korean military fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the waters off its eastern coastline on Thursday morning.

The missiles flew about 450km and reached an altitude of 60km before crashing into the sea outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, according to statements from Seoul and Tokyo.

No further details of the weapons technology tested were immediately available.

The rockets were launched just days after North Korea fired two cruise missiles in the first known military provocation by the authoritarian regime since Mr Biden’s inauguration in January.

Capt Mike Kafka, spokesman for US Indo-Pacific Command, said the Pentagon was monitoring the situation. “This activity highlights the threat that North Korea’s illicit weapons programme poses to its neighbours and the international community,” he said.

US officials had played down Sunday’s cruise missile tests, saying they did not breach UN resolutions – which bar ballistic missile launches – and were at the lower end of the range of North Korea’s normal provocations.

Speaking about the weekend launches, one US official said it was “common” for North Korea to conduct tests and that the US believed it was “not in our best interest to hype these kinds of things”.

The White House did not immediately reply to a request for comment about Thursday’s test.

Sanctions

The Biden administration is completing a review to determine its North Korea policy while Pyongyang has rebuffed American efforts to engage.

Under former president Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un continued to rapidly develop nuclear weapons technology while Washington insisted that loosening sanctions was contingent on concrete steps by Pyongyang to denuclearise.

Despite three face-to-face meetings between Mr Trump and the North Korean dictator, talks broke down after Mr Kim refused to accept US demands.

Soo Kim, a former CIA North Korea analyst now at the Rand Corporation, a think-tank, said the Biden administration’s refusal to make an explicit comment about its Pyongyang policy might have motivated Kim to “reassert North Korea’s relevance”.

“But the fact that the [first] missile test was dismissed and the antics shut down immediately may send Kim the message that the Trump days are for sure over. Beyond the ‘no more summits’ position, we’re probably talking a more measured, calibrated stance from Washington,” she said.

But “Kim also is aware that the US can’t ignore and dismiss North Korean provocations forever,” she added.

Jessica Lee, a researcher with the Quincy Institute, a think-tank, said the longer Mr Kim and Mr Biden both placed unrealistic conditions for returning to talks, the higher the chances were that military provocations such as missile tests could flare into war.

“Countries cannot effectively communicate by ballistic missile tests, yet here we are,” she said.

The weapons tests also came against the backdrop of rising international concern over a humanitarian disaster unfolding in North Korea. Human rights groups have warned of a severe economic crisis and food shortages stemming from border closures because of coronavirus, sanctions, typhoon damage and Kim’s economic policies.

Seoul, which has also pushed for re-engagement with Pyongyang, has urged the international community to ease sanctions and boost aid for North Koreans. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021