North Korea launches missiles, but U.S. still wants to talk

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North Korea conducted tests of short-range missiles last weekend on the heels of a tense meeting between the U.S. and China, as the new Biden administration continues to push for diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, two senior administration officials told reporters on Tuesday.

The officials sought to downplay the implications of the tests, emphasizing to reporters that the administration does not view the tests as a “major provocation,” and instead perceives them as within the category of “normal military activity” for North Korea. The short-range system used last weekend is not banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions, the officials said, but would not disclose details, citing “intelligence concerns.”

North Korea experts said the evidence points to cruise missiles fired from North Korea’s west coast. “It’s clear from the various reports and the [U.S. government] briefing that the U.S. didn’t see the launches” through satellites or radar, “but found out later through intelligence sources,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

“The US (as well as South Korea and Japan) would probably have seen ballistic missiles, so a cruise missile is more likely,” Lewis added.

“We do not believe that it is in our best interests to hype these things and circumstances in which we would consider those activities as part of a ‘normal’ set of a tense military environment like we see on the Korean peninsula,” one of the officials said. The press briefing closely followed a Washington Post report that first disclosed the missile tests from last weekend.

The officials added that the tests would not “close the door” on future engagement with North Korea, but stressed that the administration’s strategy for dealing with the Kim Jong Un regime will center around consultations with allies and partners in the region, particularly Japan and South Korea.

To that end, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will be hosting his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Washington, D.C. next week, the officials said. They will be among the most senior officials to visit Washington since the start of the Biden administration.

The administration has been conducting a review of the U.S.-North Korea relationship which is set to be completed soon, according to one of the officials. That review has involved extensive contact with former officials from Donald Trump’s administration, he said, as well as “virtually every individual who has been involved in diplomacy with North Korea since the mid-1990’s.”

The administration also plans to consult with China after it concludes its review, the official said, despite a very public blowup between U.S. and Chinese officials in Anchorage last week. “We will be engaging and debriefing China on our results and our proposed way forward in due course.”

Overall, though, the administration is “under no illusions about the difficulty this task presents to us,” the official said, referring to engagement with North Korea. “We have a long history of disappointment in diplomacy with North Korea, that has defied Republican and Democratic administrations.”

Former President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un face-to-face three times during his administration, hoping that direct engagement would convince the dictator to give up his nuclear arsenal in exchange for economic relief. But the North Korean regime essentially went dark on Washington in the final year of the Trump administration, and remained basically unreachable into the first several months of the Biden administration.

Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned last week that if the Biden administration “wants to sleep in peace for [the] coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”

Now, officials won’t say whether or not they’ve managed to speak to North Korea to date.

“The content of our diplomacy with North Korea, we tend at this juncture to keep between us directly,” one of the officials said. “I will underscore that we have taken efforts, and will continue to take efforts, and we believe such diplomacy, in coordination with South Korea, Japan, and China, is in our best interest. We don’t want a situation where it is perceived that our door is not open to talk.”

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