N. Korean "ballistic missiles" put Biden’s NK policy on trial

Posted on : 2021-03-26 16:39 KST Modified on : 2021-03-26 16:59 KST
The Biden administration’s North Korea policy framework could end up impacted
US President Joe Biden speaks Wednesday during an event to mark Equal Pay Day in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington. (AP/Yonhap News)
US President Joe Biden speaks Wednesday during an event to mark Equal Pay Day in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington. (AP/Yonhap News)

Two months after taking office, US President Joe Biden faces his first challenge from North Korea with the Thursday launch of two suspected ballistic missiles toward the East Sea.

How Biden responds to North Korea’s “call to the stage” appears poised to heavily impact the direction of the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington early on in his administration.

The US government did not offer any concrete response after being notified of the North Korean missile launch on the evening of Wednesday (local time). There was no public statement from Biden, the White House or the US State Department.

The only comment came in a statement by a spokesperson for the US Indo-Pacific Command, which is in charge of the Korean Peninsula.

“We are aware of North Korean missile launches this morning into the East Sea,” said the spokesperson, Navy Capt. Mike Kafka.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and are consulting closely with our allies and partners. This activity highlights the threat that North Korea's illicit weapons program poses to its neighbors and the international community. The US commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad,” he continued.

A day earlier, Biden had appeared relatively unconcerned after it was reported in the Washington Post that North Korea had launched two cruise missiles over the West Sea on Sunday. When asked by reporters whether he saw the North Korea missile launch as an actual provocation, Biden replied, “No, according to the Defense Department, it's business as usual. There's no new wrinkle in what they did."

Another US government official also downplayed North Korea’s cruise missile launch, calling it a typical activity that was not in violation of UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.

The US also reaffirmed its willingness to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang. US officials have stressed the importance of avoiding raising tensions with Pyongyang as much as possible until Washington’s North Korea policy has been finalized.

But just a day later, North Korea sent the US a clear signal with its launch of suspected ballistic missiles over the East Sea. A US government official told NBC that the projectiles fired by North Korea were very likely to have been “short-range ballistic missiles.”

If they were indeed ballistic missiles, the Biden administration will be hard pressed not to simply ignore them, as any launch of ballistic missiles by North Korea would violate UNSC resolutions. The situation could result in growing calls from US politicians and the international community for a stern response to the violation.

On the other hand, if it is concluded that the North Korean projectiles were short-range missiles that did not fall within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, the US could end up with at least some margin for adjusting the tenor of its response.

Biden’s response to the latest launch was seen as very likely to come at a press conference scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday (Washington time). His first official conference since taking office, it was announced last week without any relation to North Korea — but questions about North Korea appear likely to feature in it.

During his election campaign, Biden bluntly criticized North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a “thug,” but he has refrained from provocative remarks about Kim or North Korea since taking office.

Many are now watching to see whether he continues with his current cautious approach – or which way he goes if he decides to break with it.

Another focus of attention is on how the North Korean missile launch affects the Biden administration’s North Korea policy, which is described as having more or less reached the stage of completion.

Since the US was likely to have factored in the possibility of North Korea attempting provocations with weapons early on in the Biden administration, it doesn’t appear that the latest launch alone stands to significantly alter the direction of its North Korea policy based on its considerations to date.

But the policy framework could end up impacted — and its completion delayed — if South Korea, the US and Japan show major differences on the issue at a meeting of national security office directors scheduled to take place in Washington next week.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has already protested the launch sternly, calling it “a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.”

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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