US President Joe Biden answers a question during his first press briefing in the White House in Washington. File/AFP
North Korea threatened a further military build-up on Saturday in response to Joe Biden’s condemnation of this week’s missile launches, a weapons test that marked Pyongyang’s first substantive provocation since the US president took office.
The nuclear-armed North has a long history of using weapons tests to ramp up tensions, in a carefully calibrated process to try to forward its objectives.
Pyongyang had been biding its time since the new administration took office in Washington, not even officially acknowledging its existence until last week.
But on Thursday it launched two weapons from its east coast into the Sea of Japan, known as the East Sea in Korea.
Following the launch, Biden labelled the test a violation of UN resolutions and advised the isolated state against ramping up military testing, warning that “there will be responses if they choose to escalate.”
Ri Pyong Chol, a leading official in North Korea’s missile programme who supervised the test, said the president’s comments had revealed his “deep-seated hostility” to the regime.
“Such remarks from the US president are an undisguised encroachment on our state’s right to self-defence and provocation to it,” Ri said in a statement published by state media outlet KCNA.
Ri said Pyongyang was expressing its “deep apprehension over the US chief executive faulting the regular testfire, (an) exercise of our state’s right to self-defence, as the violation of UN ‘resolutions.’”
“If the US continues with its thoughtless remarks without thinking of the consequences, it may be faced with something that is not good,” he added, warning that North Korea was prepared to “continue to increase our most thoroughgoing and overwhelming military power.”
The comments came at a time when Washington is in the final stages of a policy review on North Korea, with signals of a firm line on denuclearisation, sanctions and human rights.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said Ri’s remarks were “essentially a threat that North Korea will respond to the US policy review with more tests.”
“Pyongyang is implementing a premeditated strategy of advancing military capabilities and raising tensions,” he added.
Tactical guided projectile
Pyongyang has made rapid progress in its capabilities under leader Kim Jong Un, testing missiles capable of reaching the entire continental United States as tensions mounted in 2017.
North Korea has reported that the Thursday launch, its first substantive affront since Biden came to office, was a test of a new “tactical guided projectile” with a solid-fuel engine.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called the two weapons launched from North Korea’s east coast ballistic missiles, which it is banned from developing under UN Security Council resolutions.
A UN sanctions committee focused on nuclear-armed North Korea has asked its experts to investigate the test and European members of the Security Council have requested an urgent meeting to discuss North Korea.
The North is already under multiple sets of international sanctions for its banned nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
A summit between Kim and then-US president Donald Trump in Hanoi in February 2019 broke down over sanctions relief and what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in return.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, told AFP that the Biden administration may seek to impose “additional sanctions against Pyongyang” if the North continues with its military provocations.
“From now, one can expect more weapons tests from the North, and very stern responses from the US,” he said.
Thursday’s launch, and an earlier test of short-range, non-ballistic missiles at the weekend, came after joint exercises by the US and South Korean militaries and a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
During their trip to Seoul and Tokyo, Blinken repeatedly stressed the importance of denuclearising North Korea, and urged Beijing — the North’s key ally — to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
Biden’s approach so far demonstrates a change of tone from his predecessor Donald Trump, who engaged in an extraordinary diplomatic bromance with Kim and last year repeatedly played down similar short-range launches.
Officials of the administration say they have sought to reach out to Pyongyang through several channels but have received no response so far.
“Kim Jong Un intends to use provocations to demand concessions but may end up increasing international resolve for North Korea’s denuclearisation,” Easley told AFP.
North Korean state media on Wednesday slammed former US vice president Joe Biden as an “imbecile” and a “fool of low IQ” after he criticised leader Kim Jong Un.
US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said on Saturday there was “no doubt” North Korea’s recent test missile launches violated United Nations resolutions.
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