North Korea Missiles Seriously Concern U.S. Allies, But Joe Biden Downplays Threat

American allies have expressed "serious concern" over North Korea's latest two weapons tests, even as President Joe Biden tries to downplay the launches and avoid escalation.

The launches are an early test for Biden's efforts to fortify American alliances in Asia, and come straight after the visit of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea, where Pyongyang's weapons were high on the agenda.

North Korea conducted two weapons tests this week, first firing two short-range missiles over the weekend. Then on Tuesday, Pyongyang conducted what is believed to be a ballistic missile launch, possibly a land-based test of its submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the two short-range missiles were launched from North Korea's eastern coast and flew some 279 miles before landing in the sea.

The second test prompted an emergency meeting of South Korea's National Security Council, the Yonhap News Agency reported. Top security officials expressed their "deep concern" at the Northern tests. South Korean and American officials are currently working to identify the specific weapons tested on Tuesday.

If confirmed as a ballistic missile test, it would violate a United Nations Security Council resolution banning any ballistic launches. This would make it harder for Biden to brush the incident off as inconsequential, as he did when asked about the weekend's weapons test.

Japan also condemned the latest test, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga calling it a "threat to the security and peace in the region."

INDOPACOM Public Affairs Officer Navy Captain Mike Kafka told Newsweek that the latest launch "highlights the threat that North Korea's illicit weapons program poses to its neighbors and the international community. The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad."

Biden is now under pressure to respond, even as his White House continues its review of North Korea policy which is expected to be completed some time in April. It remains unclear what strategy Biden will take, though the president has dismissed dictator Kim Jong Un as a "thug" and expressed his desire for full denuclearization.

Biden downplayed the weekend tests, laughing off questions from reporters. The president said the launch was not a provocation, describing the test as "business as usual." Asked what the White House had learned, he responded: "We have learned that nothing has changed."

American allies in Asia will be looking to the White House for backing on North Korea, whose missile, conventional and nuclear arsenals could inflict huge damage on neighboring South Korea and Japan.

Former President Donald Trump was criticized during his term for downplaying North Korean weapons tests, despite protests from Tokyo and Seoul. "They're short range missiles, and many people have those missiles," the former president said after tests in 2019.

Harry Kazianis, the senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, suggested Tuesday's ballistic missile test was meant as a message for Biden.

"While Biden's comments and chuckle were clearly not meant to trigger a reaction, the North Koreans will use any pretext that is offered to raise the ante—moving us closer and closer to the dark days of 2017," he told Newsweek.

"In the months ahead, we should expect the North Koreans to test bigger and more advanced missiles," Kazianis said.

Kim has maintained his moratorium on nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches, but Pyongyang-watchers and intelligence officials in South Korea and Washington, D.C. are on the look out for any signs that the dictator might resume such tests.

"We should also expect a fiery response when the Biden North Korea policy is announced, which likely will be a pressure strategy to get the Kim regime to give up its nuclear weapons," Kazianis said. "If that is indeed the case, the stage is set for another round of North Korean ICBM and potentially even nuclear testing--and another U.S.-North Korea showdown."

TVs show north korean missile launches Seoul
This file photo shows TV screens displaying a news program reporting about North Korea's missiles with file images at a shop on March 25, 2021 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images