North Korea Launches Missile Test As Tensions Rise With U.S.

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SEOUL — North Korea test-fired two short-range cruise missiles over the weekend, South Korean defense officials confirmed Wednesday, adding to a series of provocations and statements in recent weeks that experts say are warnings to Washington.

The test took place off the west coast of North Korea on Sunday, just days after the country accused the United States and South Korea of raising “a stink” on the Korean Peninsula with their annual military drills. It did not violate United Nations resolutions, which ban North Korea from developing or testing ballistic missile technologies. It did, however, mark the country’s first missile test since President Biden took office in January.

When North Korea launches missile tests, they are usually celebrated through state media and quickly confirmed by the South Korean military. ​But North Korean media has not reported on Sunday’s test. South Korean officials​ said Wednesday that they had​ detected the test when it occurred, but decided not to immediately report on it. They did not elaborate on their decision.

South Korean defense officials tend to consider short-range cruise missile tests less of a provocation than ballistic launches. They also tend not to highlight what they consider minor provocations from the North when trying to promote inter-Korean dialogue. Sill, when North Korea launched short-range cruise missiles off its east coast in April last year, they were promptly confirmed by South Korea. ​In this case, South Korean officials only confirmed the test after it was first reported by The Washington Post.

The missiles were launched from a site near Nampo, a port southwest of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, at 6:36 a.m. on Sunday, said Ha Tae-keung, a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed by intelligence officials on Wednesday. The intelligence officials said South Korean military authorities agreed with their American counterparts not to publicize the testing, according to Mr. Ha.

South Korea and the United States completed their annual 10-day military drills last week. North Korea has commonly responded to those exercises by carrying out its own drills, which sometimes involve missile tests.

Officials and analysts in the region have been watching North Korea closely to see if the country would escalate tensions to gain leverage ahead of possible negotiations with the Biden administration.

North Korea has rebuffed any serious ​dialogue with Washington since the second summit between its leader, Kim Jong-un, and former President Donald J. Trump ended abruptly in ​Hanoi, Vietnam, in ​2019. Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump failed to come up with a deal on how fast the North would dismantle its nuclear ​program or when Washington would provide sanctions relief.​

Pyongyang has made several hostile statements toward the United States in recent days, and analysts said the missile test may be part of a subtle pressure tactic, raising the possibility that North Korea will revert to a new cycle of tensions on the peninsula to squeeze concessions out of Washington.

“Pyongyang, through these new missile tests, is signaling to team Biden that its military capabilities will continue to get more potent with each passing day,” Harry J. Kazianis, senior director for Korean studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, said in an emailed comment.

The Biden administration has stepped up efforts to work more closely with its regional allies, South Korea and Japan, to better handle North Korea’s growing weapons capabilities, as well as a rising China. Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III visited Seoul and Tokyo last week as part of the administration’s first high-level diplomatic tour of Asia.

President Biden plans to complete a North Korea policy review in the coming weeks in close coordination with South Korea and Japan, Mr. Blinken said in Seoul. He said the review included both “pressure options and potential for future diplomacy.” During his visit, Mr. Blinken ​also ​criticized North Korea’s human rights record, and what he called Mr. Kim’s “repressive government” and its “widespread and systematic abuses.”

Washington achieved a breakthrough last week when a North Korean citizen was extradited to the United States for the first time. A Malaysian court agreed to extradite the North Korean businessman, who is set to face trial in an American court on charges of money laundering and violating international sanctions. North Korea accused Washington of being a “backstage manipulator” in the case, and warned that it would “pay a due price.”

It also said​ that it felt no need to respond to recent attempts by the Biden administration to establish dialogue, dismissing them as a “delaying-time trick.”

As Washington strengthens its alliances with Tokyo and Seoul​, Mr. Kim and Xi Jinping, China’s leader, have vowed to bring their two communist countries closer together.

In a message to Mr. Xi reported in North Korean media this week, Mr. Kim stressed the need to strengthen the unity between the two countries in order to “cope with the hostile forces.” In his own message to Mr. Kim, Mr. Xi vowed to ​help ​preserve “peace and stability” on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s latest missile test suggests Mr. Kim “will tolerate continued economic reliance on China in order to come out of the pandemic on the offensive against Washington and Seoul,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

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