Latest North Korean missile shot raises fears of a breakout

Kim Jong Un will not be ignored.

Even with Europe braced for a shooting war in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics set to begin in China and a global pandemic still uncontained, the North Korean leader is using a battery of new missile firings to remind the world of the threat he poses and give President Biden another growing foreign policy headache to address.

Pyongyang on Sunday test-fired what experts are calling the most powerful missile since Mr. Biden took office more than a year ago, the seventh such launch in January after a long period of quiet and diplomatic drift as the new U.S. administration settled in.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters in Tokyo that the high trajectory of Sunday’s 30-minute shot marked the longest-range ballistic missile tested since November 2017, when a flurry of tests — including two over Japan and three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach the U.S. mainland — brought a furious response from President Trump and sparked talk of war.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, chairing a rare emergency meeting of his country’s National Security Council, said Sunday that the flurry of January North Korean tests, capped by Sunday’s powerful missile, suggested the North was ready to end its moratorium on ICBM testing, the Korea Times reported Sunday.

The missile test halt was put in place when Mr. Kim and then-President Donald Trump engaged in unprecedented but ultimately unsuccessful personal diplomacy to end the crisis.

Analysts say Mr. Kim has grown increasingly frustrated with the new U.S. administration‘s lack of outreach, with diplomacy on the peninsula largely on the back burner since Mr. Biden took office.

Mr. Biden, in fact, has yet to nominate a new ambassador to South Korea a year after the last U.S. ambassador left the job.

“North Korea has kept its moratorium on nuclear tests and ICBM launches so far while expressing a willingness for dialogue,” Mr. Moon said at the plenary meeting. “But if it did fire an intermediate-range ballistic missile, we can consider it has moved closer to scrapping the moratorium.”

Mr. Kim has problems of his own at home: COVID-19 has shut down links to the outside world, the economy is struggling, and the U.S. has already imposed new sanctions in recent weeks over what the North claimed was a test of a new “hypersonic” weapon.

North Korean officials have said they no longer feel bound by the unofficial moratorium begun when Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump started negotiating, after a failed summit between the two in Hanoi in 2019 and the absence of meaningful talks since then.

And history suggests that the North Korean leader is most dangerous when he feels he is being ignored.

North Korea “wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it would be too costly,” Lief-Eric Easley, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University, told The Associated Press.

“By threatening stability in Asia while global resources are stretched thin elsewhere, Pyongyang is demanding the world compensate it to act like a ‘responsible nuclear power,’” Mr. Easley said.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said that Seoul’s lead nuclear envoy spoke Sunday with U.S. special envoy Sung Kim about the intermediate-range missile test. The U.S. representative in the conversation condemned the test as a setback for diplomacy and a violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, the news agency said.

“The two sides agreed to maintain the security posture based on the firm South Korea-U.S. alliance and continue efforts for an early resumption of dialogue with North Korea,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command also issued a statement Sunday condemning the North Korean test and “calling on [North Korea] to refrain from further destabilizing acts.”

The U.S. is already facing questions of whether it is being stretched thin by domestic divisions, the Ukraine crisis in Europe and the ongoing challenge of China.

“There’s a lot on our plate,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged at a briefing last week, while insisting the administration had the resources to cope.

“We’re focused on all of it,” Mr. Kirby said. “Just because right now one issue obviously is certainly capturing the attention of the world community doesn’t mean that we’re not equally pursuing and focused on other threats and challenges to the country.”

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