North Korea tested short-range missile systems over the weekend, but the Biden administration is keeping its door open to talks, a diplomatic effort that officials said won’t be easy.
The Biden team has been studying how best to approach Pyongyang after former President Donald Trump’s unusual diplomatic push, which included three historic in-person talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. No other sitting U.S. president has met directly with a North Korean leader. The two men also exchanged complimentary letters, but the dialogue did little to advance denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.
It’s the first round of missile tests since Biden took office, but officials downplayed the significance. They declined to give details of the tests, describing them only as “short range” and as “military activity … that is not sanctioned under UN Security Council resolutions restricting the ballistic missile program” and also as “normal.”
“North Korea has a familiar menu of provocations when it wants to send a message to a U.S. administration,” one of the officials said, noting the tests were “on the low end of that spectrum” of military activities.
Biden also said he doesn’t consider the tests a major provocation. “According to the Defense Department, it’s business as usual, there’s no new wrinkle in what they did,” Biden said.
Next week, President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan will host his counterparts from Japan and South Korea for day-long discussions about strategy and coordination going forward, officials told reporters.
“We are under no illusions about the difficulty this task presents to us. We have a long history of disappointment in diplomacy with North Korea,” one of the officials said.
The White House had confirmed recent reports that administration officials had reached out to Pyongyang behind the scenes, but had not received a response.
The Biden administration had consulted widely with allies and partners on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, including during talks last week with Chinese counterparts in Anchorage. Officials said they had spoken with a wide range of people who had been in touch with North Korean officials since the mid-1990s, including people in the Trump administration.
At the start of the Trump administration, tensions between the U.S. and North Korea were high. In 2017, Pyongyang carried out a number of tests of intercontinental missiles and other violations of U.N. resolutions. But, after Trump and Kim met in Singapore in 2018, North Korea stopped testing long range ballistic missiles and nuclear tests.
The dialogue between the Trump and Kim fell apart at the 2019 summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. North Korea wanted some relief from crippling economic sanctions, in return for cutting down on some of its nuclear weapons arsenal. The Trump White House said it would not ease sanctions until North Korea had taken significant steps toward denuclearization.
The Biden administration officials said they hoped that diplomatic engagement with North Korea could continue, but did not support the idea of canceling military exercises as a way to spur talks, as had been tried by the Trump administration.
“We think the hope of diplomacy really rests on the reality of deterrence and our forward-deployed capabilities,” one of the officials said. “We thought that some of the efforts that were taken previously to turn off necessary exercises and the like were actually antithetical” to keeping peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, the official said.