Ukraine crisis won’t take Washington’s eyes off North Korea, top U.S. diplomat says

The top U.S. diplomat has hinted that North Korea is likely to continue testing more powerful weapons — including a possible intercontinental ballistic missile launch — as tensions between Washington and Moscow surge over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But in a trilateral meeting with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged that the Ukraine crisis would not hamper Washington’s ability to deal with a show of force by Pyongyang.

“I certainly don’t rule out that North Korea could engage in further provocative actions as things are happening in other parts of the world, including in Europe with regard to Ukraine,” Blinken said Saturday in Hawaii when asked about the growing possibility of North Korea staging an ICBM test.

The U.S. warned Friday that Russia could use the more than 100,000 troops and materiel it has massed on the Ukraine border in an all-out invasion of that country that could begin at “any time.”

Amid concerns that the Ukraine crisis could take Washington’s focus off the North Korean nuclear threat, Blinken reiterated that the U.S. can “walk and chew gum at the same time” even as it faces down other global challenges.

Speaking at a news conference following the trilateral summit meeting, Blinken said the United States and its two Asian allies would “continue to work to find ways to hold the DPRK accountable,” after it conducted seven missile tests this year — the most ever in a single month for the isolated nation — while also pursuing dialogue and diplomacy.

DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea launched a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that Japan said has a range of 5,000 kilometers — putting all of Japan and the U.S. territory of Guam within striking distance — on Jan. 30, the first such test since November 2017. Both Japan and Guam are home to key U.S. military bases that would be used in any crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

The move came weeks after North Korea hinted at ending its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests while calling on Washington to drop what it said is a “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang.

The moves have stoked concern that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be opening the door to tests of increasingly powerful weapons after years of focusing on less provocative launches.

“I think it is clear to all of us that the DPRK is in a phase of provocation,” Blinken said, noting the recent spate of missile tests, which are in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. “We will continue to hold the DPRK accountable even as we seek to engage in diplomacy.”

Blinken also said the three top diplomats had discussed ways of deepening cooperation to deter the North and “limit the reach of its most dangerous weapons.”

In a joint statement released after Blinken’s trilateral meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, the three condemned the North’s latest launches as “destabilizing” and committed to “close trilateral cooperation to achieve complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Experts have said that the IRBM launch late last month is a worrying signal that Kim appears to be laying the groundwork for a return to long-range missile tests.

“The resumption of IRBM launches makes it more likely that the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch in over four years will be occurring soon, reflecting a likely North Korean judgment that the benefits from resuming ICBM launches have increased and the costs are bearable,” former senior U.S. State Department nonproliferation official Vann H. Van Diepen wrote on the North Korea-watching 38 North website earlier this month.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech during a ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of new flats in the Hwasong area in this undated photo released Sunday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech during a ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of new flats in the Hwasong area in this undated photo released Sunday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

Saturday’s meeting was the final leg of a whirlwind trip to the Indo-Pacific region that took Blinken to Melbourne, for talks with foreign ministers from fellow “Quad” nations, which includes Japan, Australia and India, as well as a stopover in the Pacific island nation of Fiji. The trip was widely viewed as aimed at helping ameliorate concerns over the U.S. focus on the region.

In their joint statement, the three diplomats also voiced strong concern over Moscow’s threat to Ukraine, pledging “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and committing “to work closely together to deter further Russian escalation.”

Although China was not specifically mentioned in the statement, the document backed the United States’ newly released Indo-Pacific strategy while obliquely singling out Beijing over what the three claim are “activities that undermine the rules-based international order” and “unilateral actions that seek to alter the status quo and increase tensions in the region.”

The statement said the three countries had also “emphasized the importance of peace and stability” in the flash point Taiwan Strait.

China has sent large numbers of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, including 39 aircraft into the area on Jan. 23, unleashing a flood of concern in both Washington and Tokyo and raised the specter of military miscalculation.

The two governments both view Taipei as a crucial, albeit informal, partner in combating Beijing’s attempts to change the status quo in the region via coercion. China calls Taiwan a “core issue” and sees the self-ruled island as an inherent part of its territory and a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.

The joint statement’s language on Taiwan, which has now become almost boilerplate for the U.S. and Japan amid fears of an invasion or conflict in the area, was a rare instance of the South Korean government publicly mentioning the contentious issue.

Seoul has remained far more mum than Tokyo and Washington on the Taiwan issue, apparently out of fear of angering Beijing, its top trading partner, and turning China into an uncooperative partner on the North Korean denuclearization issue, according to observers.

Although the three officials pledged to hold regular trilateral ministerial meetings, there appeared to be no improvement in Japan’s frosty bilateral relationship with South Korea, including from a bilateral meeting between the neighbors’ top diplomats.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has made trilateral cooperation a key pillar of its approach to dealing with the nuclear-armed North, but the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul remains soured over wartime history and other issues.

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