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US has assessed North Korea could be preparing to carry out first weapons test since Biden took office

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U.S. officials are on alert as the United States and South Korea conduct reduced and simulated military exercises and U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are in Asia to meet with its Japanese and South Korean counterparts.

A test or provocation of some kind would not come as a surprise, regional experts said.

“North Korea has traditionally taken some kind of highly provocative action in early administrations, both in the United States and in South Korea,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation who noted the tests conducted in 2017, shortly after former President Donald Trump took over in 2009, to mark the arrival of former President Barack Obama in the White House. “The idea was to‘ train them like a dog, ’a North Korean deserter told me,” Klingner said, squeezing the concessions of the two most powerful countries.

“Thus, history would indicate that they would also do something in the early months of a Biden administration,” he said. “If they make a provocation, it’s perfectly predictable.”

On Monday, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North Korean leader, warned the Biden administration against “causing stench on his first step” on Monday, hours after the White House said it had received no response to the diplomatic overtures it had been making in Pyongyang.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to respond to the comment Tuesday. “We have no comment or direct response to comments made from North Korea,” Psaki told reporters in a briefing aboard Air Force One, en route to Philadelphia with the president. He noted the meetings between Blinken, Austin and their counterparts, where “the safety of the region will no doubt be a topic of debate.”

Later this week, Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan are also heading to Alaska to meet with their Chinese counterparts, which Psaki also said will present a debate on “security in the region.”

Blinken and Austin reaffirmed their commitment to the “complete denuclearization of North Korea” in Japan on Tuesday and the creation of opportunities for greater cooperation between the United States, Japan and South Korea, according to a statement from the Department of the United States.

They will hold meetings in South Korea on Wednesday, local time.

A senior US official said North Korea could decide whether to pass a test after seeing what comes out of the Blinken and Austin meetings in Asia.

General warns of North Korea’s “alarming success”

On Tuesday, a senior US general issued a public warning about the threat posed by North Korea

“Kim Jong Un’s regime has achieved alarming success in its mission to demonstrate the ability to threaten the U.S. homeland with ICBMs armed with nuclei, believing that these weapons are necessary to deter U.S. military action and ensure the survival of his regime, “General Glen Van Herck told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, head of the U.S. Northern Command and responsible for defending the continental United States.

The possibility of a trial in the coming days has led Biden administration officials to several agencies to discuss how they would respond publicly if a case occurs, officials said.

Officials would not be specific about what the latest information shows, but a likely scenario, based on imaging and other intelligence services, is that there may be a missile or rocket test. The last known North Korean weapons test was conducted in March 2020.

In recent days, US intelligence has focused on vehicle activity at a site near Sanum-dong, outside Pyongyang, where it is believed that vehicles were built in the past. ballistic missiles and space launchers.

There has also been activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, according to analysis of new satellite images published by 38 North, a leading North Korean control group.

Officials tell CNN that if North Korea conducts a test while the two secretaries are in Asia, it would send a message to Biden that Kim wants to make sure he is seen as a key player in the region. However, a test would not be a shock, as many analysts were surprised that Kim had refrained from performing it for so long.

A U.S. response varies depending on what exactly Pyongyang tried.

If North Korea does a nuclear test or an ICBM test, particularly a test of an ICBM, they marched in October 2020 which has been nicknamed the “Monster ICBM”, which would be “worrying, it would be very provocative.” dir Klingner.

“It would be a large-scale violation of UN resolutions; it would require a strong response from the Biden administrator; and it would reduce diplomatic outreach. When they do something provocative, they put a three- to six-month break in diplomacy because no one wants to be seen gratifying this kind of behavior, “he continued.

If Pyongyang tests a missile, the questions that will determine the U.S. response will be how far the missile was, how far it traveled and flew over Japanese territory, Klingner said. Rocket engine testing “isn’t really a violation, but it’s not helpful,” he said.

Trump ignored missile launches in the latter part of his presidency

Trump ignored the record number of North Korean missile launches in 2019, arguing that they did not violate Kim Jong Un’s commitment not to launch nuclear tests or ICBM, even though the North Korean leader had announced he no longer needed to do so. these tests because the programs were completed and UN resolutions require Pyongyang not to make any launches.

How Biden’s foreign policy approach is based from Trump

The Biden administration is still conducting a review of the Trump administration’s North Korean policy, which could be completed “in the coming weeks,” according to a senior State Department official.

While Biden is unlikely to write “love letters” to Kim Jong Un as his predecessor did, the Biden administration has not yet offered a clear break with the previous administration in its stated goals for the his approach to the Hermit Kingdom. On several occasions, in statements, statements or briefings, U.S. officials have said their goal is “the complete denuclearization of North Korea.”

Military and intelligence officials have long said they assess that North Korea continued to research and develop nuclear missiles and warheads throughout the Trump administration despite public rhetoric from the Trump and now Biden administrations about denuclearization.

“The continued search for North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs poses an extraordinary threat to the United States and our allies and partners in the region,” David Helvey, deputy secretary, told the House of Representatives. in functions of Defense of Indo-Pacific Affairs. Service commission last week.

This story was updated with additional details on Tuesday.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Nicole Gaouette and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.

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