Kim Jong-un will not be ignored.
Even with Europe braced for a shooting war in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics set to begin in China and a pandemic still uncontained, the North Korean leader is using a battery of missile firings to remind the world of the threat he poses and give President Biden another growing foreign policy headache to address.
Pyongyang on Sunday test-fired what experts are calling the most powerful missile since Mr. Biden took office more than a year ago. It was the seventh launch in January after a long period of quiet and diplomatic drift as the U.S. administration settled in.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters in Tokyo that the high trajectory of the 30-minute shot marked the longest-range ballistic missile tested since November 2017. That was when a flurry of tests — including two over Japan and three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach the U.S. mainland — brought a furious response from President Trump and sparked talk of war.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, chairing a rare emergency meeting of his country’s National Security Council, said the latest round of North Korean tests suggested that the North was ready to end its moratorium on ICBM testing, The Korea Times reported.
Mr. Moon, a longtime supporter of engagement with the North whose term expires this spring, warned that the situation on the peninsula is beginning to resemble the tense early days of the Trump administration.
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Pyongyang “should stop its actions that create tensions and pressure and respond to the dialogue offers by the international community, including South Korea and the United States,” Mr. Moon said in a statement.
Missile tests were halted when Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump engaged in unprecedented but ultimately unsuccessful personal diplomacy to end the crisis.
Analysts say Mr. Kim has grown increasingly frustrated with the new U.S. administration’s lack of outreach. Diplomacy on the peninsula has largely been on the back burner since Mr. Biden took office.
Mr. Biden has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Korea a year after the last U.S. ambassador left the job.
“North Korea has kept its moratorium on nuclear tests and ICBM launches so far while expressing a willingness for dialogue,” Mr. Moon said at the plenary meeting. “But if it did fire an intermediate-range ballistic missile, we can consider it has moved closer to scrapping the moratorium.”
Mr. Kim has problems of his own at home: COVID-19 has shut down links to the outside world, the economy is struggling and the U.S. has imposed more sanctions in recent weeks over what the North claimed was a test of a new “hypersonic” weapon.
North Korean officials have said they no longer feel bound by the unofficial moratorium begun when Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump started negotiating, after a failed summit between the two in Hanoi in 2019 and the absence of meaningful talks since then. In addition to Sunday’s test, North Korea just in the past week has fired off two short-range ballistic missiles and their warheads and an updated long-range cruise missile system.
History suggests that the North Korean leader is most dangerous when he feels he is being ignored.
North Korea “wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it would be too costly,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University, told The Associated Press.
“By threatening stability in Asia while global resources are stretched thin elsewhere, Pyongyang is demanding the world compensate it to act like a ‘responsible nuclear power,’” Mr. Easley said.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Seoul’s lead nuclear envoy spoke Sunday with U.S. special envoy Sung Kim about the intermediate-range missile test. The U.S. representative in the conversation condemned the test as a setback for diplomacy and a violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, the news agency said.
“The two sides agreed to maintain the security posture based on the firm South Korean-U.S. alliance and continue efforts for an early resumption of dialogue with North Korea,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command also issued a statement Sunday condemning the North Korean test and “calling on [North Korea] to refrain from further destabilizing acts.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Washington has repeatedly said it is willing to meet with North Korean diplomats for talks “without preconditions” and expressed frustration that Pyongyang has essentially ignored the offer.
“We are open to having diplomatic discussions. We have offered this over and over to [North Korea], and they have not accepted it,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The U.S. is already facing questions of whether it is being stretched thin by domestic divisions, the Ukraine crisis in Europe and the ongoing challenge of China.
“There’s a lot on our plate,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged at a briefing last week. Still, he insisted the administration had the resources to cope.
“We’re focused on all of it,” Mr. Kirby said. “Just because right now one issue obviously is certainly capturing the attention of the world community doesn’t mean that we’re not equally pursuing and focused on other threats and challenges to the country.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.