And while Biden said the tests violated United States Resolution 1718 and promised to “respond appropriately” to any escalation, he also left the door open for diplomacy.
That may be difficult after leading North Korean politicians rejected repeated outreach attempts by the Biden team and issued fiery warnings last week urging Washington “not to create a stink”. Meanwhile, US relations with China, Pyongyang’s largest trading partner and perhaps the best hope of pushing them into talks, are at an all-time low.
Tensions so far are nowhere near as high as when then-President Donald Trump said he would rain down “fire and fury” on Pyongyang for threatening a strike against the United States, leading to an escalating war of words with the United States North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would not lead until the two met in Singapore in 2018.
In comparison, the Biden team takes a more conventional approach. The government is in the midst of a major overhaul of North Korea’s policies, and for now at least the Biden team is avoiding escalation while calling on allies behind the scenes to step up pressure on Pyongyang.
That could be enough, said former officials.
“This is an old pattern, and while it’s provocative, I don’t think it’s entirely warranted to climb an escalation ladder when there are no channels of communication between a new government and North Korea,” said Randy Schriver, the former front-runner Pentagon Indo official -Pacific in the Trump administration.
“Aside from making public statements and pointing out that this is in conflict with United States resolutions, I think the real key is getting partners and allies on board with a print campaign,” Schriver said.
But there are steps the Biden team can take Take to send a stronger signal without resorting to military action. While the Trump administration was already imposing harsh sanctions on Pyongyang, the Biden administration was could increase the pressure interested parties to enforce these sanctions more strictly, for example to prevent the handover of goods to North Korean ships.
China, North Korea’s premier trading partner, is a key piece in the puzzle. While the Trump administration has had limited success in convincing Beijing to put pressure on Pyongyang, Biden’s top officials have signaled that they want to re-engage on that front.
“China plays a crucial role in persuading North Korea to drive denuclearization. It is having a tremendous impact, and I think it has a common interest that we do something about the North Korean nuclear program and the increasingly dangerous ballistic missile program, “said Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and her colleagues last week in Seoul.
“I would hope that China will definitely use this influence effectively to persuade North Korea to denuclearize,” said Blinken.
However, China and the US are in the midst of a growing political rift – contrary to everything from trade practices to human rights. And it’s not clear how much Beijing is trying to pressure North Korea right now.
For one thing, Beijing’s communist leaders may not seem to want to agree with Washington. At the same time, by tightening sanctions enforcement, China could add to the plight of North Koreans, and that could mean a growing humanitarian and migrant crisis on its border.
A former Trump administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said North Korea’s Kim and Chinese leader Xi Jinping had a complicated, suspicious relationship. However, the former official said it appears the two have reached an unspoken agreement: as long as North Korea avoids conducting a nuclear test or a long-range missile test, Beijing will curtail its enforcement of economic sanctions.
Top American officials said this week the new administration will avoid escalating the situation.
“We do not believe it is in our best interests to exaggerate these things and circumstances in which we would view these activities as part of a ‘normal’ military tense environment such as that seen in the Korean Peninsula,” said a senior official told reporters.
Behind the scenes, the new government is calling on Japan and South Korea to face the North Korea problem. Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs were a central topic of discussion at Blinken and Austin’s meetings in Seoul and Tokyo last week, and it is certain that next week Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor, will host his South Korean and Japanese colleagues in Washington.
U.S. intelligence analysts have determined that recent missile tests – of two short-range ballistic missiles that officials believe are a new type of weapon – were research and development shots, rather than a response to action by the U.S. or South Korea, according to two U.S. American officials familiar with the secret service. This is in contrast to last weekend’s short-range weapon tests, which military officials linked to military exercises between the US and South Korea.
But the Pentagon doesn’t see the recent launches as a security threat, officials said. According to one of the officials, despite violating United States Security Council sanctions, Thursday’s test was considered normal operation with respect to North Korea.
“As always, our common stance of mutual readiness remains at the highest level,” said Col. Lee Peters, spokesman for the US Forces in Korea.
Former officials agreed with the assessment.
“I view the latest testing as a legal issue, but not a safety concern,” said Eric Sayers, an American Enterprise Institute employee. “US. The Korean and US Indo-Pacom armed forces are well positioned to prevent an actual military escalation.”
The most recent missile tests are Pyongyang’s “attempt to attract attention and demonstrate how advanced their capabilities are” as the new government conducts its review, Schriver said, noting that their goal is to get recognized as a nuclear state on the world stage will.
Schriver suggested that the Biden team restore military exercises that have been scaled back in recent years due to the diplomatic efforts of the Trump administration.
“That would be a lot more deterrent than diplomatic steps,” he said.
However, experts agree that the new administration shouldn’t expect Pyongyang to easily abandon its nuclear arsenal – something the Biden team has cited as a condition for negotiations. In fact, North Korea has not responded to multiple attempts at contact by the new government.
“You should have realistic expectations of how quickly this can be achieved,” said Schriver. “I’d rather see North Korea under pressure for some time before we try diplomacy again.”