US: N. Korea may conduct missile test as Biden visits Asia

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White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence shows that it's a “genuine possibility” that North Korea will conduct another ballistic missile test or nuclear test around President Joe Biden's visit to South Korea and Japan that begins later this week, according to the White House.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Wednesday said that the U.S. is preparing for North Korea to conduct a “long range missile test, or a nuclear test or frankly both” in the days leading up to, during, or after Biden’s trip to the region. The president is set to arrive in South Korea on Friday before heading to Japan on Sunday.

“We are preparing for all contingencies including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we’re in Korea or in Japan,” Sullivan said. “We are coordinating closely with our allies in both Korea and Japan on this.”

North Korea in recent months has test-launched a spate of missiles in what experts call an attempt to modernize its weapons and pressure its rivals to accept the country as a nuclear state and relax their sanctions. The latest tests—the firing of three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea—came on the same day last week that Pyongyang acknowledged its first COVID case.

Sullivan said he spoke with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, about a potential provocation by the North during a call between the two officials earlier on Wednesday. Beijing has served as North Korea's closest interlocutor.

The senior Biden adviser did not specify how the U.S. might react to further testing by North Korea, but said the administration would "make both short and longer term adjustments to our military posture as necessary to ensure that we are providing both defense and deterrence to our allies in the region” in response to Pyongyang.

North Korea's recent provocative run in weapons demonstrations, including its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile in nearly five years, is brinkmanship aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiate economic and security concessions from a position of strength.

It also comes amid a massive COVID-19 outbreak in the North, the first time during the more than two-year-old pandemic that North Korean officials have acknowledged the virus has been detected within its borders.

The North Korean nuclear threat is expected to to be at the top of the agenda when Biden meets South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Kim Tae-hyo, Yoon’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters Wednesday that North Korea probably won’t conduct a nuclear test this week but that its preparations for another ICBM test appeared imminent.

Kim Jong Un during Tuesday’s Politburo meeting affirmed he would “arouse the whole party like (an) active volcano once again under the state emergency situation” to prove its leadership before history and time and “defend the well-being of the country and the people without fail and demonstrate to the whole world the strength and the spirit of heroic Korea once again,” KCNA said. The report did not make a direct reference to a major weapons test.

Recent commercial satellite images of the nuclear testing ground in Punggye-ri indicate refurbishment work and preparations at a yet unused tunnel on the southern part of the site, which is presumably nearing completion to host a nuclear test, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Beyond Parallel, a website run by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.