Although U.S. foreign policy during the first part of Joe Biden’s presidency has focused more on issues such as a rising China and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Biden this week will be confronted by another nagging foreign policy issue, a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Biden, who departs Friday for his first trip to Asia as president, may be welcomed by a major North Korean weapons test, according to U.S. and South Korean officials.
U.S. intelligence reflects the “genuine possibility” that North Korea will conduct either a long-range missile launch or a nuclear test, or possibly both, in the days surrounding or during Biden’s Asia trip, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday.
“We are preparing for all contingencies, including the possibility that such a provocation would occur while we are in Korea or in Japan,” Sullivan said in a briefing.
Much of Biden’s five-day trip is expected to focus on China, where he will work to reassure allies who have questioned long-term U.S. commitment to the region.
During the trip, Biden is expected to launch the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a long-awaited economic initiative meant to increase U.S. involvement in Asia.
In Tokyo, Biden will hold a meeting of the Quad, a four-country grouping made up of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – democracies that have a strong interest in containing China’s rise.
In Seoul, Biden will meet South Korea’s newly inaugurated president, Yoon Suk Yeol, who has vowed to take a tougher stance on China and who wants to expand cooperation with Washington on other global issues.
However, South Korean officials have warned for days that a major North Korean test may upend Biden’s agenda. South Korean and U.S. officials have come up with a “Plan B,” which may include altering Biden's existing schedule in the event of a North Korean provocation, according to Kim Tae-hyo, South Korea’s first deputy national security adviser.
North Korea has often conducted major launches on or around visits to the region by U.S. presidents. Some analysts say such moves may be meant to attract U.S. diplomatic attention or increase North Korean leverage in potential nuclear negotiations.
North Korea has conducted a dizzying number of missile launches this year. In March, the North launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile in almost five years.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service believes North Korea has also completed preparations for what would be its seventh nuclear test and is currently determining the best time to conduct such an explosion, according to South Korean lawmakers quoted by the country's Yonhap news agency.
Biden’s visit comes a week after North Korea first acknowledged it is struggling to contain the coronavirus and began reporting an explosion of “fever” cases, which are presumed to be COVID-19-related.
On Thursday, North Korean state media reported 262,270 new fever cases, and one additional death. Over the past week, North Korean officials say nearly 2 million people have been hit by the fever outbreak, including 63 people who have died.
However, analysts are skeptical about North Korean pandemic data, saying Pyongyang may be hiding the true extent of the outbreak for political reasons or may not have the supplies to sufficiently track the virus’ spread.
Medical experts have long warned a coronavirus outbreak could devastate impoverished North Korea, whose dilapidated health care system focuses mainly on the well-being of the elite in richer parts of the country.
Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department expressed support for providing COVID-19 vaccines and other pandemic help to North Korea.
Despite its dire pandemic situation, North Korea may not be any more likely than before to accept outside help, analysts warn.
“Just because North Korea has confirmed infections doesn’t mean it will come hat in hand to the international community,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha University. Instead, North Korea may continue major weapons tests to “avoid showing weakness,” Easley said.
“Such gratuitous launches also reinforce how difficult it will be to reach the North Korean people,” he added.
North Korea has rejected or ignored multiple offers of COVID-19 assistance, including shipments of vaccines from COVAX, the United Nations-backed vaccine sharing mechanism.
North Korea and Eritrea are the world’s only two countries yet to begin mass coronavirus vaccinations, according to the World Health Organization.