TOKYO — North Korea complained about ongoing U.S.-South Korea military exercises on Tuesday and warned the Biden administration that if it wanted peace for the next four years, it should refrain from "causing a stink."
The complaint, issued by Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, comes as the United States’ top diplomat and its defense chief are in the region for talks with the Japanese and South Korean governments.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken deflected when asked about the comments at a news conference in Tokyo with other senior U.S. and Japanese officials.
“I’m familiar with the comments you referenced, but the comments I’m actually most interested in today are those of our partners and allies,” he said. “That’s why we come to this region. That’s why we come to Japan, precisely: To listen to our allies and discuss how collectively we might seek to address the threat from North Korea.”
Blinken added that North Korea has not responded to numerous attempts at outreach from the Biden administration, and that the United States is reviewing whether additional “pressure measures” or attempts at diplomacy make sense.
The annual joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, which began on March 8, are always a source of tension with Pyongyang. They have been scaled back for the past three years and only conducted by computer simulation, initially to allow space for dialogue with the North but now also because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The main target of Tuesday’s irate statement was South Korea, and Kim Yo Jong made it clear that even a scaled-back exercise, designed to target “fellow countrymen,” was unacceptable.
“If it wants to sleep in peace for coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step,” the statement read.
Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said Kim Yo Jong’s statement “reeks of hypocrisy,” coming after North Korea had conducted its own winter military drills.
U.S. officials said on Saturday that the Biden administration had reached out to North Korea three times since mid-February but had not yet received a response.
The silence is hardly surprising: The Biden administration is undertaking an internal review of policy toward North Korea, and Pyongyang may want to see what comes out of that process before formulating its own response, while the annual military exercises are always a tense moment.
Kim Yo Jong, who has become a vitriolic critic of the government in Seoul over the past year, said North Korea was considering pulling out of a military agreement with the South designed to lower tensions along their heavily fortified border.
She said the “spring days” of 2018 — when Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held their first summit — “won’t come easily again.”
Some experts worry the North Korean regime may try to get the attention of the Biden administration by conducting a missile test, while others say it may want to gauge President Biden’s approach first.
“The Kim regime’s rhetoric leaves more room for diplomacy than if it had welcomed Blinken and Austin with a long-range missile test,” said Easley. “But North Korea’s latest threats mean the allies have precious little time to coordinate their approaches on deterrence, sanctions and engagement.”