SEOUL, South Korea — U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman on Tuesday warned of a forceful response if North Korea carries out its first nuclear test explosion in nearly five years as she traveled to Seoul to meet with South Korean and Japanese allies and discuss the escalating standoff.
According to U.S. officials and South Korean officials, North Korea appears ready for another test at Punggye Ri’s nuclear testing facility. The site was home to a thermonuclear device that it claims to have used to launch intercontinental missiles.
While the Biden administration has vowed to push for additional international sanctions if North Korea goes on with the nuclear test, the prospects for meaningful new punitive measures are unclear with the United Nations Security Council divided over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
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“Any nuclear test would be in complete violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. There would be a swift and forceful response to such a test,” Sherman said, following a meeting with South Korea Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong.
“We continue to urge Pyongyang to cease its destabilizing and provocative activities and choose the path of diplomacy,” she said.
Sherman and Cho will be meeting on Wednesday with the Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Moritakeo to discuss North Korean nuclear issues. Sherman’s trip to Asia came after North Korea fired a salvo of eight ballistic missiles into the sea Sunday, possibly setting a new high in single-day launches, extending a provocative streak in weapons tests this year that also included the country’s first demonstrations of ICBMs since 2017.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and South Korea’s First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyundong talk to the media on June 7, 20,22 at Seoul, South Korea’s foreign ministry.
Jung Yeon-Je—Pool/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could further escalate his brinkmanship by conducting what would be the country’s seventh nuclear test since 2006. Experts say North Korea could use a test claim an ability to build small nuclear bombs that could be clustered on a multiwarhead ICBM or fit on Kim’s expanding range of short-range, solid-fuel missiles that pose an increasing threat to South Korea and Japan.
Rafael Mariano Grossi (director general, International Atomic Energy Agency) said Monday that indications point to the possibility of a Punggye–ri passage being reopened in preparations for nuclear testing.
Hours before Sherman’s meeting in Seoul, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in Washington that the United States remains concerned that North Korea could seek is seventh test “in the coming days.”
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The Biden administration’s punitive action over North Korea’s weapons tests in recent months have been limited to largely symbolic unilateral sanctions. Russia and China had rejected a U.S. sponsored resolution which would have placed additional sanctions against North Korea for its May 25th ballistic test.
“We have called on members of the international community, certainly members of the UN Security Council’s permanent five, to be responsible stakeholders in the U.N. Security Council as a preeminent forum for addressing threats to international peace and security,” Price said.
“Unilateral actions are never going to be the most attractive or even the most effective response, and that is especially the case because we are gratified that we have close allies in the form of Japan and the ROK,” he said, referring to South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.
A view of Tunnel 3 at Punggye Ri’s nuclear testing site, North Korea. This image was taken on April 14, 2022. It has been overlayed using Google Earth’s Terrain Model.
DigitalGlobe/Getty Images—2019 Maxar
North Korean state media have yet to comment on Sunday’s launches. These launches were made after Ronald Reagan’s U.S. Aircraft Carrier concluded their three-day joint naval drill in South Korea in Manila Sea. It was the country’s first ever such drill since November 2017 and is part of a larger effort to strengthen their military exercises.
North Korea has long condemned the allies’ combined military exercises as invasion rehearsals and often countered with its own missile drills, including short-range launches in 2016 and 2017 that simulated nuclear attacks on South Korean ports and U.S. military facilities in Japan.
The United States and Japan conducted joint drills to retaliate for the North Korean missile launches.
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Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since 2019 over disagreements in exchanging the release of crippling U.S.-led sanctions for the North’s disarmament steps.
Kim refused to surrender his most important guarantee of survival, even though he faced severe domestic challenges, such as a decrepit economy and the COVID-19 epidemic.
His government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s offers for open-ended talks and is clearly intent on converting the dormant denuclearization negotiations into a mutual arms-reduction process, experts say.
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