White House still eager for talks with North Korea, but sees missile tests as destabilizing
By Kevin Liptak and Kylie Atwood, CNN
(CNN) -- A string of provocations from North Korea -- including its most powerful ballistic missile test in years over the weekend -- could be designed to extract concessions from the United States ahead of potential negotiations, a senior US administration official suggested on Sunday.
"Of course we're concerned," the official said of the latest round of launches from North Korea, which have unnerved US allies after a stretch of relative quiet.
The Biden administration has long sought to restart diplomacy with Pyongyang, extending the invitation for talks without any preconditions. While there has been "no serious discussion internally" of a meeting between President Joe Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, officials are eager for talks at a lower level "anytime, any place."
Yet while officials are confident their messages are being received, they still await a response from North Korea.
As it begins testing missiles at a hurried clip, officials say the new posture could be a way to force the US into a weaker negotiating position.
"This is classic negotiation in some ways, and the pre-steps to a negotiation, where they're trying to see what are we willing to do ... as a precondition? And are we willing to essentially pay them to come to the table?" the senior administration official said. "Anytime you need to pay someone to come to the table, you can be pretty sure that they're not going to stay there."
The White House has been watching with concern as North Korea resumes its tests, which on Sunday included an intermediate range ballistic missile. It was an escalation of North Korea's weapons program and a possible sign of larger tests to come, according to South Korea's President Moon Jae-in. It came at a moment when Biden is focused on another international crisis: the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine's border.
The US official, speaking to reporters on Sunday, said North Korea has been following a pattern of testing its latest systems as a demonstration of its capabilities to the rest of the world. North Korea is looking to increase pressure and validate and refine its weapons systems, the official said.
"They have done a variety of systems that have tended to be shorter range systems up until now," the official said. "They've claimed a hypersonic glide vehicle. And I think that this is in keeping with things that we've seen them doing in the past where they've sought to show and demonstrate that they've developed new systems and capabilities and then to test them."
Still, the official conceded the US track record on guessing North Korea's motivations is poor, even as it remains evident Kim is intent on ramping up his weapons.
"The reality is that the North Koreans almost always have reasons for what they do. And our track record of understanding those ahead of time is not always so great," the official said.
The US is "still looking forward to a response" from North Korea to invitations for talks, though the official said those would begin at a level lower than a direct meeting between Biden and Kim.
"We want to sit down and have a discussion with them. I think that the idea that this can only be done at that level, we reject. I think that that's not serious, and that we have a great deal of respect for the professionalism of our North Korean interlocutors," the official said.
In the meantime, the official did not preview a major shift in strategy from the White House in confronting North Korea, despite the latest developments. Instead, the US will take steps meant to emphasize American commitment to its allies in the region.
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