Ballistic Missile Launch Near Japan Pushes Tensions With North Korea

Mar 25, 2021
Originally published on March 25, 2021 6:19 am

North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan Thursday, in its first provocation of the Biden White House.

The missiles fell into the waters that lie between North Korea and Japan, and avoided the latter's economic zone, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in a statement.

Suga condemned Pyongyang's actions and said it "threatens the peace and security of Japan and the region." He noted that North Korea's actions violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Thursday's launch was the first ballistic missile test since March 2020, and Suga said officials need to be "more vigilant and watchful than ever before."

North Korea also tested cruise missiles over the weekend, which are not barred by the U.N. Security Council.

"According to the Defense Department, it's business as usual, there's no new wrinkle in what they did," President Biden said at the time.

The United States Indo-Pacific Command said Thursday's launch "highlights the threat that North Korea's illicit weapons program poses to its neighbors and the international community."

Hong Min, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul, said Thursday's test likely contains both military and political objectives.

On the military side, "it's a pattern that North Korea tests missiles and multiple rocket launchers as part of its regular training in late March and early April." Politically, he said, "the test is probably aimed at seeing what the U.S. reaction is, without staging a huge provocation."

The Biden administration is still formulating its foreign policy approach to Pyongyang. Officials have refrained from taking any big steps - in any direction - toward North Korea.

It will likely be a different approach to former President Donald Trump's attempts at diplomacy with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. While their talks marked the first in-person meetings between leaders of the two states, the two summits led to no advancement in denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea has made it clear it intends to continue building up its military capabilities while waiting for the U.S. to offer concessions. In a military parade in October, the North displayed what is believed to be its biggest strategic missile so far.

Hong Min said it's unclear whether Thursday's launch tested a new weapon or an existing one. If it's indeed new, state media will likely report on it Friday, he said, so that "it can send an internal message that North Korea is responding strongly against the external pressures from the U.S."

NPR's Se Eun Gong in Seoul contributed to this report.

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North Korea launched two ballistic missiles on Thursday morning, quite some time ago now with the time difference. It's the second test in less than a week by North Korea. Pyongyang tested a couple of other missiles on Sunday. And this poses a challenge to the Biden administration, which is trying to figure out how to approach North Korea, if at all. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul, South Korea, covering the story. Anthony, welcome back.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what exactly happened?

KUHN: Well, the South Korean military is saying is that today's launches appear to be of short-range ballistic missiles. And that's different from Sunday, when they launched cruise missiles. Now, cruise missiles are actually not barred by United Nations Security Council resolutions. And President Biden said after that that, basically, it looks like business as usual for North Korea. But ballistic missiles are barred. They can carry nuclear payloads sometimes. And so President Biden will have a tougher time shrugging those off. And these would be the first ballistic missiles North Korea has tested since March of 2020. We should remember they have not tested any ICBMs or nukes since 2017, but continue to try to improve their other military capabilities, like missiles that can hit anywhere on the peninsula, on the Korean peninsula, that can evade defenses and that can also not be hit so easily like submarine-launched missiles.

INSKEEP: I think we have to assume that when North Korea conducts a missile test, they know the world will know and that it's a kind of provocation. Why send that signal now?

KUHN: Well, the timing is not actually so obvious. The only thing it really coincides with today is the Olympic torch relay, which, of course, Japan is not happy with. It comes after Secretary of State Blinken and Defense Secretary Austin visited Seoul. And it comes after annual U.S.-South Korea military drills. And if they had staged the test then, it would have been a stronger message. North Korean state media hasn't said anything. So we'll have to wait. But basically, you know, this could have come at any time because Pyongyang's message has remained consistent since negotiations break - broke down after the 2019 Hanoi summit. The message is that the U.S. must come to them offering concessions, especially sanctions relief. And in the meantime, North Korea is just going to keep on improving its arsenal.

INSKEEP: Of course, that Hanoi summit a couple of years ago involved a different president. Now we have a new president who wants to take his own approach to North Korea or figure out his own approach to North Korea. How does North Korea's attitude complicate that?

KUHN: Well, one concern here in Seoul, which is hoping for engagement with Pyongyang, is that, you know, it will push the U.S. towards a hard line policy, which means the U.S. will ask North Korea to disarm unilaterally, which they have said they will not do. They have said that they're open to negotiation if the U.S. sticks to an agreement made in Singapore between then President Trump and Kim Jong Un, which is for step-by-step, incremental movements that both sides reciprocate.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.