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N. Korea readying ICBM or nuclear test for Biden visit, officials say

A satellite image shows a reactor and new excavation activity at North Korea's Yongbon nuclear complex on May 7. (Maxar Technologies/Reuters)
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SEOUL — North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test or a long-range ballistic missile test around the time of President Biden’s trip to the region this week, according to intelligence from Washington and Seoul.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. intelligence reflects a “genuine possibility” that there will be a “long-range missile test or a nuclear test or frankly both” in the days leading up to, during or after Biden’s trip to South Korea and Japan.

U.S. intelligence showed there could be a North Korean nuclear test, or missile test, or both, during President Biden's trip to South Korea and Japan. (Video: Reuters)

Seoul’s National Intelligence Service also detected preparations for nuclear and missile tests in the North, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being briefed by the spy agency Thursday.

“Despite the coronavirus situations [in North Korea], there are signs pointing to a missile launch,” Ha told reporters, attributing the information to the spy agency. “The country is also done preparing for a nuclear test and just waiting for the right time.”

Largely unvaccinated North Korea announced a “severe national emergency” since reporting its first official coronavirus case last week. Because of a lack of testing capacity there, the true scale of the outbreak in the reclusive country is unclear, but the state media has estimated nearly 2 million possible cases.

Pyongyang has rebuffed offers of coronavirus aid from Seoul and Washington, South Korean national security adviser Kim Tae-hyo said in a briefing Wednesday. Given Pyongyang’s lack of response, it will be difficult to discuss North Korea aid in the upcoming meeting between Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, Kim said.

“If North Korea conducts a long-range missile or nuclear test during Biden’s Seoul visit, it clearly marks a deliberate provocation aimed at extorting concessions from Washington,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

During a summit in 2019, President Donald Trump refused North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s demand for sanctions relief in exchange for disarmament steps. North Korea has since rejected Washington’s offer for nuclear talks and ramped up weapons testing activities.

While North Korea would view the presidential summit between South Korea and the United States as a fresh opportunity for provocation, it is unclear whether the country has the bandwidth to carry out a nuclear or long-range missile test, Yang said. Kim Jong Un called this week for a “countrywide anti-epidemic war to fight the severe public health crisis” and even mobilized his military to help with the supply of medicines in Pyongyang.

A nuclear test from North Korea would strike a sour note amid international efforts to provide the country with vaccine doses, medicine and other forms of support, analysts said.

North Korea sees China as its preferred donor for coronavirus aid, said Ha, the lawmaker. He said the United States and South Korea are the last countries from which the North will seek help.

If Pyongyang carries out a serious provocation during Biden’s three-day South Korea visit, the allies can turn to a “plan B” that could alter the summit’s schedule, said Kim Tae-hyo, the national security adviser.

Biden is landing in South Korea on Friday to kick-start his Asia trip, which will focus on strengthening U.S. ties with allies amid growing competition from China.