North Korea tested its first missiles since President Joe Biden took office, launching two short-range projectiles last weekend off the country’s west coast and into the adjoining Yellow Sea.
But you won’t find the Biden administration threatening “fire and fury” any time soon. In fact, two senior US officials waved off suggestions that the test was a big deal or that it was meant as a direct challenge to the new US president.
“We’ve been in administrations where the North Koreans have really tested with provocative actions: nuclear tests, long-range systems,” one of the officials told journalists about two hours after the Washington Post first reported on the launches. “I would say, generally speaking, what we saw this weekend does not fall in that category.”
Biden himself told reporters on Tuesday that “according to the Defense Department, it’s business as usual. There’s no new wrinkle in what [North Korea] did.” Asked if the test would affect any diplomatic efforts, the president just laughed and walked away.
The administration’s collective shrug is the right response, most experts told me. “It seems to me that these latest launches were probably not actually intended as a challenge to the Biden administration at all,” said Markus Garlauskas, the US national intelligence officer for North Korea from 2014 to 2020.
There are good reasons why. Former President Donald Trump implicitly made a deal with North Korea while he was in office: Test anything you want as long as it’s not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a nuclear weapon that could threaten America. Short of that, go nuts.
That stance wasn’t a wise one, experts told me at the time, as it essentially allowed Pyongyang to steadily improve its arsenal with no repercussions. But experts did note that Trump’s dictum helped lower tensions by not turning every missile launch into a crisis requiring a forceful American response.
It looks as though Pyongyang learned from its experience with Trump and is still abiding by that general deal. North Korea launched what appear to be short-range cruise missiles that don’t violate UN Security Council resolutions on the country’s weaponry. In other words, the North Korean regime had every right to try out its missiles and plunge them into the sea.
North Korea didn’t even announce the test as it usually does, signaling even Pyongyang felt it was all routine. Some experts, and even Biden administration officials, say the launches were part of “normal military activity” by North Korean forces.
Pyongyang’s soldiers often participate in military exercises before they assist with the country’s spring planting, the period when all citizens must grow rice and other crops to fulfill the country’s agricultural needs.
Sure, it’s never nice when North Korea tests weapons — it can for sure feel scary, especially if you live within striking distance of said weapons — but this launch shouldn’t worry Biden, US allies, or the global public. “This is such a nothing story,” said Jenny Town, director of the Stimson’s Center 38 North program, which tracks North Korea’s political and military developments.
How we’ll know when North Korea wants to send a message
It’s important to note that North Korea has stepped up its belligerence in recent days.
Blasting a joint US-South Korea military training exercise that took place this month, Kim Yo Jong — the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — released a statement saying, “We take this opportunity to warn the new US administration trying hard to give off a powder smell in our land ... if it wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
And after the Biden administration repeatedly said it sought the “denuclearization of North Korea” — implying only Pyongyang would have to make major nuclear concessions while the US would still maintain its nuclear defense of South Korea — the regime clapped back.
“What has been heard from the US since the emergence of the new regime is only lunatic theory of ‘threat from North Korea’ and groundless rhetoric about ‘complete denuclearization,’” said Choe Son Hui, the first vice minister of foreign affairs. All US attempts to reach out to North Korea for dialogue, which Biden’s team has tried unsuccessfully to do, were a “cheap trick,” she added.
That comment, which seemed to close the door (at least rhetorically) to direct US-North Korea diplomacy, “was much more of a direct challenge” to the administration than last weekend’s missile test, said Garlauskas, now at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
These comments and the missile test will certainly feature in the administration’s North Korea review, which Biden officials say will conclude soon. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will discuss the outcome of that review next week with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
Whatever the result, experts say a clear challenge to Biden would be an ICBM or nuclear bomb test, effectively crossing the red line Trump set. The ICBM launch would be even more provocative if it was the new model displayed during a parade last October.
It’s not only the biggest ICBM ever seen in North Korea, but also the largest road-mobile missile with its own truck-based launcher in the world. Which means that, in case of a war, North Korea’s military could roll one of these missiles out of underground bunkers, place it somewhere on land, and shoot it at the United States.
Furthermore, experts suspect its bigger size allows the weapon to hold multiple nuclear bombs, roughly three or four (along with decoys, perhaps), which could overwhelm US missile defenses. The US has just 44 ground-based interceptors (missiles) in Alaska and California to shoot weapons out of the sky, using four interceptors to destroy each individual warhead.
Until that ICBM flies through the air or another similarly provocative test happens, experts say, Biden should respond with a dismissive chuckle.
“On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being a test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile and one is Kim farting in our general direction, this is a two,” Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program at the Middle Institute of International Studies, told CNN on Tuesday.