SEOUL — North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Thursday, in its first significant provocation against the United States under President Biden, officials said.
South Korea confirmed that North Korea had launched two short-range missiles, adding that they were most likely ballistic missiles. Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan was the first regional leader to announce that North Korea had resumed testing “ballistic” missiles in violation of United Nations resolutions. A senior United States official also confirmed that the projectiles were ballistic missiles.
The ballistic missile test, the first by North Korea in a year, indicated that the country was once again resorting to a show of force, raising tensions to gain leverage as the Biden administration finalizes its review of Washington’s North Korea policy. It was a warning to Washington that North Korea will follow up with more provocative tests, involving longer-range missiles, depending on whether Mr. Biden decides to adopt more sanctions, engage in dialogue or a mix of both in dealing with the country’s growing nuclear and missile threats, analysts said.
Mr. Suga noted that the United Nations Security Council had barred North Korea from developing ballistic missile technologies, including tests like the one on Thursday.
“I strongly protest and strongly condemn it,” he said.
In a statement, the United States military’s Indo-Pacific Command said that the test “highlights the threat that North Korea’s illicit weapons program poses to its neighbors and the international community.” Washington’s commitment to defending Japan and South Korea — American allies most vulnerable to North Korea’s short-range missiles — remains ironclad, it said.
The missiles dropped into waters between North Korea and Japan and outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Mr. Suga said. Both the Japanese and South Korean military authorities said that the missiles flew 280 miles.
In Tokyo and Seoul, the governments convened their National Security Councils to discuss North Korea’s latest weapons test.
On Sunday, North Korea also test-fired what South Korean officials called two short-range cruise missiles. But United States officials played down the significance of the test, with Mr. Biden telling reporters that “there’s no new wrinkle in what they did.”
“This latest North Korean missile launch is most likely a reaction to U.S. President Joe Biden’s downplaying and seeming to laugh off their weekend missile tests,” said Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest. “The Kim regime, just like during the Trump years, will react to even the slightest of what they feel are any sort of loss of face or disparaging comments coming out of Washington.”
North Korea conducted its last major weapons tests in late 2017 when it launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that it said was powerful enough to deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. It then abstained from missile tests as its leader, Kim Jong-un, engaged in diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump. But after the Kim-Trump summit collapsed without a deal in Hanoi in February 2019, North Korea resumed a series of short-range ballistic missile tests from May 2019 until March of last year, when the tests were halted amid the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Trump dismissed those short-range tests, touting North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests as one of his biggest foreign policy achievements.
As details of the Biden administration’s new North Korea policy are made available in the coming weeks, North Korea is likely to resume raising tensions, analysts said.
Kim Jong-un “will keep it up through graduated escalation, culminating in an emphatic show of force,” potentially including the flight test of a new, bigger but untested ICBM that North Korea rolled out during a military parade last October, said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. At a party meeting in January, Mr. Kim vowed to further advance his country’s nuclear capabilities, declaring that it would build new solid-fuel ICBMs and make its nuclear warheads lighter and more precise.
In recent days, North Korea has sent the Biden administration a series of signals of its annoyance.
Last week, it accused the United States and South Korea of raising “a stink” on the Korean Peninsula with their annual military drills. North Korea also said it felt no need to respond to recent attempts by the Biden administration to establish dialogue, dismissing them as a “delaying-time trick.” On Friday, after a North Korean businessman was extradited from Malaysia to face trial in an American court on charges of money laundering and violating international sanctions, North Korea warned that Washington would pay “a due price.”
The series of statements left officials and analysts wondering what would be North Korea’s next steps.
“North Korea uses weapons tests strategically, both to make needed improvements to its weapons and to garner global attention,” said Jean H. Lee, a North Korea expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “With the United States hinting that it will seek to tighten the sanctions regime, North Korea will be looking to expand its arsenal by ramping up testing.”
The past four U.S. presidents all tried sanctions or dialogue but failed to persuade North Korea to stop building nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.
Despite three face-to-face meetings, Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump were unable to reach an agreement, depriving Mr. Trump of what he had hoped would be a crowning foreign policy achievement. Instead, the failed summits gave Mr. Kim more time to further develop his weapons, experts say.
Analysts are closely watching Washington to see if Mr. Biden’s approach to North Korea will move away from the more direct engagement favored by Mr. Trump and back toward former President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience,” which meant gradually escalating sanctions.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has called North Korea “a hard problem.” When Mr. Blinken was in Seoul last week, he said the Biden administration planned to complete a North Korea policy review in the coming weeks in close coordination with South Korea and Japan. He said the review included both “pressure options and potential for future diplomacy.”
The Biden administration has stepped up efforts to work more closely with its regional allies, South Korea and Japan, to better handle North Korea’s growing weapons capabilities, as well as a rising China. Mr. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III visited Seoul and Tokyo last week as part of the administration’s first high-level diplomatic tour of Asia.
While in Seoul, Mr. Blinken also called on China to use its economic influence — virtually all of North Korea’s external trade goes through China — to help roll back its nuclear weapons program. American officials complained that China has failed to crack down on sanctions evasions by North Korea in its waters. They also warned that China was most likely helping North Korea with cyberthefts as a way to fund its nuclear program.
In a message this week to Xi Jinping, China’s leader, Mr. Kim stressed the need to strengthen unity between the two countries in order to “cope with the hostile forces.”
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Eric Schmitt and John Ismay from Washington.