Despite fresh provocations from Pyongyang, the Biden administration is “hoping” North Korea won’t carry out what would be its seventh nuclear test and first in five years, according to a top State Department official, who says Washington is prepared to respond “appropriately” if Pyongyang moves forward with the test that U.S. intelligence has warned may be imminent.
A new nuclear test by Pyongyang would send tensions soaring in the region, and likely force the U.S. and its South Korean and Japanese allies to respond.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Lambert outlined Mr. Biden’s approach in remarks Friday, during which he also asserted that the administration continues to offer to hold talks with the North Korean regime despite being repeatedly rebuffed.
“We continue to try to message to the North Koreans that, in short, we will meet them anywhere to talk about anything, but to date, of course, they have not manifested any type of willingness to do that,” Mr. Lambert said.
“But hope springs eternal,” he told a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We will continue to work on this. We will continue to try to make it a success.”
But just two days after the U.S. diplomat spoke, North Korea was at it again, test-firing two ballistic missiles with the potential range to reach the Japanese mainland. The tests come in the wake of a major policy shift by Tokyo for a major defense spending boost to create a bigger, more offensive-oriented military.
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The launches came two days after the North Korean regime said it had successfully carried out a test of a solid-fuel motor that could potentially power a more mobile and powerful intercontinental ballistic missile designed to strike the U.S. mainland.
South Korean security officials convened an emergency meeting after Sunday’s tests and Japanese Vice Defense Minister Toshiro Ino said they threatened the safety of Japan, the region and the international community. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launches highlight the destabilizing impact of North Korea’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs, the Associated Press reported.
The comments from Mr. Lambert, who oversees the State Department’s Japan and Korea portfolios for the Biden administration, come amid growing concern among the U.S. and its allies that a North Korean nuclear test, the first since 2017, could dangerously destabilize a region already on edge over geopolitical tension emanating from Russia’s war in Ukraine and the shaky state of U.S. relations with China.
Pyongyang has already engaged in an accelerated schedule of ballistic missile tests. Mr. Lambert noted the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has carried out 63 over the past year — far more than in any previous single-year period — and that eight of the tests have included intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
But while U.S. intelligence warned in May that preparations for an underground nuclear detonation were detected at Punggye-ri, the site of all six of the North’s nuclear tests from 2006 to 2017, the Kim regime has thus far refrained from going through with the test of a new nuclear weapon.
“We’re all hoping that the North Koreans will decide that it would be unwise to conduct a seventh nuclear test,” Mr. Lambert said Friday. “But as is our wont in both the Pentagon and at the State Department, we’re ready for it. So, should they conduct a nuclear test, our alliance will respond appropriately.”
After North Korea’s 2017 nuclear test, President Trump ordered three U.S. aircraft carriers — the USS Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz — to waters off the Korean Peninsula as a show of force against the Kim regime. The confrontation veered in an unexpected direction when Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim held a series of unprecedented personal meetings that ultimately failed to produce a denuclearization agreement.
North Korea has used weapons tests and other military provocations in the past as a way to force the U.S. to the table and ease crippling international economic sanctions. But so far, Mr. Kim has shown no interest in talks with Washington or its allies amid a surge of weapons tests this year.
High-level U.S., South Korean and Japanese diplomats declared after meeting in Tokyo in late October that a new North Korean nuclear test would be met with an “unparalleled” response, but the Biden administration has not clarified what the response may entail.
While Mr. Lambert did not delve into specifics on what the administration is preparing for a response, he suggested U.S. and South Korean officials are in close consultation on a range of possibilities.
He said the Biden administration has responded to requests by the government of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for a deepening of U.S.-South Korea discussions on “extended deterrence” — a reference to potentially beefing up U.S. nuclear capabilities in Northeast Asia.
“We’ve been having a number of those conversations,” Mr. Lambert said. “We have resumed extended deterrence talks for the first time in several years. We’re having regular discussions at all levels about manifestations of extended deterrence.”
Regional experts say the reason the Kim regime has not moved ahead with a nuclear test is likely tied to Pyongyang’s complex relationship with the Communist Party-ruled government in neighboring China, which acts as North Korea’s primary economic backer and ally.
Although the Biden administration has pushed for Beijing to persuade North Korea not to go forward with a test, some analysts say the strategy is unlikely to work because Mr. Kim is determined to prove that his regime is not controlled by China despite its heavy economic reliance on Beijing.
Mr. Lambert suggested the Biden administration remains wedded to the notion that China will act as a partner in the event of a nuclear test.
“We know the Chinese do not like North Korean nuclear tests,” he said. “I’m hopeful that should the North Koreans conduct a nuclear test, the Chinese would want to talk with us about the appropriate response.”