North Korea has conducted its second significant weapons test in the past week, as a return to military provocations by nuclear-armed Kim Jong Un creates one of the first big foreign policy challenges for Joe Biden and US allies.
According to South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff, the North Korean military fired at least two projectiles into the waters off its eastern coastline on Thursday morning.
No further detail, including the specification of weapons used, was immediately available.
The launches on Thursday came just days after North Korea fired two cruise missiles, in what was the first known military provocation by the authoritarian regime since Joe Biden became US president in January.
The US and South Korea did not publicly disclose the missile launches on Sunday. The White House only responded after media reported that Pyongyang had fired two short-range missiles.
US officials earlier played down the cruise missile tests, saying they did not breach UN resolutions — which bar ballistic missile launches — and were at the lower end of the range of provocations that North Korea likes to conduct.
Speaking about the weekend launches, one US official said it was “common” for North Korea to conduct tests and that the US believed it was “not in our best interest to hype these kinds of things”.
The White House and Pentagon did not immediately reply to requests for comment about Thursday’s launches.
The Biden administration is completing a review to determine its North Korea policy. Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, will discuss the contours of the policy with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts when they visit Washington at the end of next week.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, last week said Pyongyang had so far rebuffed American efforts to engage with the regime.
Under former president Donald Trump, Kim continued to rapidly develop nuclear weapons technology while Washington insisted that loosening of sanctions was contingent on concrete steps by Pyongyang to denuclearise.
And despite three face-to-face meetings between the North Korean dictator and Trump, talks broke down after Kim refused to accept US demands.
Soo Kim, a former CIA North Korea analyst now at Rand Corporation, said the fact that the Biden administration had not made any explicit comments about its North Korea policy might have motivated Kim to “reassert North Korea’s relevance”.
“But the fact that the missile test was dismissed and the antics shut down immediately may send Kim the message that the Trump days are for sure over. Beyond the ‘no more summits’ position, we’re probably talking a more measured, calibrated stance from Washington,” she said.
The weapons tests also come against the backdrop of rising international concern over a humanitarian disaster unfolding in North Korea. Human rights groups have warned of a severe economic crisis and food shortages stemming from border closures because of coronavirus, sanctions, typhoon damage and Kim’s economic policies.
Seoul, which is also pushing for engagement with Pyongyang, has urged the international community to ease sanctions and boost aid for the North Korean people in response.