North Korea has carried out its first weapons test since President Joe Biden took office, according to three US officials, launching two projectiles last weekend in a move senior administration officials downplayed as falling “on the low end of the spectrum” of provocative actions the regime could carry out.
The test had been widely expected, as officials and experts have long anticipated that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would attempt to send a message to the Biden administration about the country’s importance in the region.
One US official told CNN that North Korea had launched short-range projectiles, possibly artillery or cruise missiles, not ballistic missiles – a key distinction that underscores the Biden administration’s view that it does not qualify as a serious breach and will not prevent the US from pursuing diplomacy with Pyongyang.
`”We do not see the activity that took place this weekend as closing that door,” a senior official said Tuesday, referring to future attempts at diplomacy.
Biden, asked Tuesday what he’d learned about the test, told reporters before he boarded Air Force One in Ohio, “We have learned that there’s nothing much that’s changed.”
While senior administration officials downplayed the seriousness of North Korea’s actions, they reiterated that US forces in the region are always prepared and on high alert.
“It would be hard to find a place on the planet where there is more vigilance than the circumstance and situation surrounding North Korea. Our forces are always prepared, always on high alert,” one senior official said.
“It is common for North Korea to test various systems … we do not publicly respond to every kind of test,” the senior administration official added. “This is a system that is not covered by UN Security Council resolutions. It is a normal part of the kind of testing North Korea would do. We do not believe it is in our best interest to hype these things in circumstances in which we would consider those activities as part of a ‘normal’ set of a tense military environment like we see on the Korean Peninsula.”
News of the weapons test comes as North Korea has been relatively quiet since the weekend, refraining from touting its military prowess or ability to stand up to the United States, leaving officials wondering about the intent behind the launch.
South Korea and Japan, America’s regional allies, were similarly quiet.
South Korea’s military detected the launch of two cruise missiles on Sunday morning, the Ministry of Defense later said in a text to reporters.
“Our military was monitoring missiles in real time in cooperation with the US, and detected (the missiles),” the ministry said. It said it is analyzing the specifics of the missiles.
A South Korean lawmaker, Ha Tae-keung, said in a Facebook post that the authorities decided not to announce the launch as they have done in the past.
Biden’s North Korea policy review in ‘final stages’
The test, which was first reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday, marks the first known weapons test by North Korea since Biden took office and comes as his administration is still mulling its options for dealing with regime’s nuclear threat.
Lawmakers and key US allies are eagerly awaiting details about Biden’s North Korea policy, which they expect will be announced publicly in the coming weeks when the administration has completed a policy review, multiple sources familiar with the internal discussions told CNN earlier this month.
Senior administration officials said Tuesday that the policy review is in its “final stages” and that Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, would host his Japanese and South Korean counterparts next week in Washington to discuss the matter in depth.
North Korea’s decision to conduct a weapons test before that announcement is largely unsurprising, as US officials, lawmakers and experts have been warning for weeks that the Hermit Kingdom would likely conduct some sort of weapons test in the near future.
“North Korea traditionally has done some kind of strongly provocative action early in both US and South Korean new administrations,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told CNN last week, pointing to tests conducted in 2017, shortly after former President Donald Trump took office, and in 2009, to mark former President Barack Obama’s arrival in the White House.
“So history would indicate they’d do something in the first few months of a Biden administration as well,” he said at the time. “If they do a provocation, it’s perfectly predictable.”
But the North Korean action was less provocative than under previous administrations.
Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, which specializes in open-source intelligence, told CNN on Tuesday that North Korea appears to have tested a coastal defense cruise missile, which he said would be “fairly routine and, all things considered, a very mild response to the US-South Korea military drill.”
“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile and 1 is Kim farting in our general direction, this is a 2,” he added.
CNN reported last week that US intelligence assessed North Korea could be preparing to carry out its first weapons test since Biden was sworn in as President and that US officials were on alert as US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Asia for meetings with their Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
Blinken and Austin have since left the region, but the North Korean missile test still raises questions about how the Biden administration will choose to respond publicly.
That response will vary depending on what, exactly, Pyongyang tested. Senior administration officials declined to provide details about the specific type of system North Korea tested over the weekend, but reiterated that it was a “short-range” system.
Reaching out to Trump officials
As the Biden administration conducted a thorough review of its policy toward North Korea, senior officials at the White House and State Department held a series of extensive conversations with their counterparts from Trump’s team, according to current administration officials.
The conversations were “polite,” “respectful” and “very helpful” in determining the potential for future engagement with North Korea, the officials said, suggesting that following Trump’s failed summit with Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, there had been little substantive dialogue or interaction with Pyongyang.
In those talks, Trump officials ascribed the halt in communication with North Korea to a variety of potential reasons, the Covid-19 pandemic and a reevaluation inside North Korea among them.
Biden’s team believes that diplomacy is not off the table.
“We are on our forward foot in wanting to clearly signal that we are prepared for continuing engagement in Northeast Asia with key partners and indeed with North Korea,” an official said.
The officials said they learned a lot from their Trump counterparts both about the discussions Trump had had with Kim in Singapore and Vietnam and about other, private sessions between US and North Korean delegations.
Last week, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader, warned the Biden administration against “causing a stink at its first step,” hours after the White House said it had not received a response to diplomatic overtures it had been making to Pyongyang.
The next day, Blinken and Austin reaffirmed their commitment to the “complete denuclearization of North Korea” in Japan and to creating opportunities for further cooperation among the US, Japan and South Korea, according to a statement from the US State Department.
Last Tuesday, a senior US general also issued a public warning about the threat posed by North Korea.
“The Kim Jong Un regime has achieved alarming success in its quest to demonstrate the capability to threaten the US homeland with nuclear-armed ICBMs, believing such weapons are necessary to deter US military action and ensure his regime’s survival,” Gen. Glen Van Herck, head of US Northern Command and responsible for the defense of the continental United States, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Maegan Vazquez, Jake Kwon and Kylie Atwood contributed reporting.