North Korea provokes in predictable ways

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In many ways, North Korea is quite predictable. The government in Pyongyang was expected to try to provoke the Biden administration, and this week it did just that with a series of missile launches. International reaction has been muted — as it should be. Every challenge does not deserve a response. But North Korea should not be allowed to set the pace for diplomacy.

The United States should complete its policy review, consult with allies and partners and then agree on a way forward. Pyongyang’s attempts to escalate should be called out for what they are: transparent efforts to dictate the tempo and nature of a confrontation. Our response should be reasoned and measured.

The North Korean regime invariably tests a new U.S. president, and Biden’s tough talk during the campaign — he called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “a thug” — made a challenge likely. A nine-day U.S.-South Korean joint military exercise that started March 9 provided additional incentive to take action. When U.S. officials met with Japanese and South Korean counterparts last week and they publicly announced that they had discussed North Korea, a provocation became a virtual certainty. (Pyongyang often greets senior U.S. officials to the region with a test of some sort.)

According to media reports, North Korea first fired two projectiles on Sunday, alternatively described as short-range missiles, cruise missiles or artillery shells. After a muted response — defense officials in Japan, the United States and South Korea had no comment until asked by the media — North Korea followed up Thursday with the launch of two more missiles, this time reported to be ballistic missiles. That is an important escalation: Ballistic missiles are sanctioned by United Nations resolutions and a launch would demand a response.

That is the likely purpose. Short-range missile tests are routine and much less provocative. U.S. President Joe Biden dismissed the weekend launches, calling them “business as usual.” That low-key response was an attempt by the U.S. and its partners to maintain the upper hand. U.S. officials admitted on background that “it’s not in the U.S interest to hype these things,” while insisting that U.S. military forces remain prepared and on high alert. That is the correct attitude. The U.S. should not signal indifference to such launches as it suggests a willingness to tolerate local provocations — a green light to proceed as long as the U.S. homeland remains unthreatened.

Wednesday’s test ups the ante, even if it was expected. As Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tweeted Wednesday morning, after the missile flew 470 km and landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, “It threatens the peace and security of Japan and the region, and is a violation of United Nations resolutions.”

The Biden administration is conducting a North Korea policy review, and is expected to report its findings to Japanese and South Korean counterparts during a trilateral meeting of national security advisors scheduled to be held in Washington next week. The three men will strategize on how to proceed.

The U.S. would like to engage with North Korea — “diplomacy is always our goal,” said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki — but Pyongyang has refused to talk with U.S. interlocutors for over a year. Earlier this month, the Biden team revealed that it had reached out to North Korea “through multiple channels,” but they were rebuffed. In response, Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, warned the U.S against “causing a stink at its first step,” while Choe Son Hui, North Korean first vice-minister of foreign affairs, dismissed the outreach as “a cheap trick.” Choe criticized Biden policy as a “lunatic theory of ‘threat from North Korea’ and groundless rhetoric about ‘complete denuclearization.’”

That rhetoric is familiar. It is the standard reply to any U.S. administration that refuses to acknowledge that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state and demands denuclearization of the North rather than arms control. That position is unacceptable: North Korea must never be a formal nuclear weapons state. Its possession of such weapons must be seen as a violation of international law and subject to sanctions. That is only a starting point, however.

Getting the North to honor its obligations, eliminate its nuclear arsenal and come back into compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — and numerous United Nations sanctions resolutions — is only possible if there is a unified strategy and approach by Japan, the U.S. and South Korea. That assignment was always difficult but has become even more so.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump seemed more interested in making the North Korean problem go away than he was in solving it. Yet even his readiness to accommodate Kim could not yield a breakthrough; instead, talks broke down in Hanoi two years ago. Biden is much more skeptical of North Korean intentions but South Korean President Moon Jae-in continues to seek closer ties with Kim Jong Un, making a united front among the three allied governments much harder. Without that integration of policy, there is no chance of getting China to pressure North Korea, which is the key to any campaign to bring about change in Pyongyang.

It is unclear if — and unlikely that — Wednesday’s ballistic missile launch will change the Chinese calculus. A thoughtful response from the U.S., however, should show Seoul that the Biden administration is examining this problem through a new lens and is genuinely interested in solving it. It will also be clear then that the real obstacle to a successful resolution is in Pyongyang, not Washington, and push the Moon administration to do its part.

The Japan Times Editorial Board.

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