North Korea could launch an intercontinental missile test or even a nuclear test to try to overshadow U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to South Korea, an expert told CNBC on Friday.
“They’ve already done two intercontinental ballistic missile tests earlier this year and we’ve been seeing tunneling activity preparing for a nuclear test,” Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Friday.
He added that such a test would be intended to “overshadow” Biden’s trip.
The White House has been bracing itself for such a move by North Korea during Biden’s first Asia visit as president.
“Our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility there will be either a missile test or a nuclear test or both,” U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday, a day before Biden departed for Asia.
Biden arrived in Seoul on Friday for a three-day visit in South Korea, and will travel to Tokyo, Japan on Sunday.
He is attending a Quad summit hosted by Japan, where leaders of the four-nation Quadrilateral Security Dialogue are meeting. It is a strategic grouping made up of the U.S., Australia, Japan and India, aimed at countering China’s looming military presence in the Indo-Pacific.
The Heritage Foundation’s Klingner said while the U.S. would like to talk to Pyongyang on a range of issues including denuclearization, North Korea was unwilling to engage with either the U.S. or South Korea at this stage.
“They may choose to [conduct the tests] during Biden’s trip to divert attention away from the objectives [of the trip] … in both countries,” he said, adding it’s also calculated to try to force Biden in having to respond to the North Korean action.
Klingner, also a former CIA officer, said that by a test by North Korea would be an attempt to signal that the isolated country is “strong” despite recent reports that it is battling its first reported Covid-19 outbreak.
He also said South Korea would forge a much closer relationship with the U.S. under newly elected President Yoon Seok-youl, adding that a strong alliance with Washington will form “the foundation” of his relationship with other countries such as North Korea, China and Japan.
“Yoon has said that he’s firmly aligned with the U.S. and that strategic ambiguity is dead,” Klingner said.
Taiwan invasion not likely
Defense expert Derek Grossman also dismissed suggestions of the possibility of an invasion of Taiwan by China while the world’s attention is focused on Russia’s attack on Ukraine — something Japan has warned about in the run-up to the Quad summit.
Grossman, who was also an intelligence advisor at the Pentagon, pointed to the difficulty of launching an amphibious invasion of any size.
“Russia has a contiguous land border with Ukraine, whereas China would have to cross the Taiwan strait, which is 100 miles long,” he told CNBC’s “Capital Connection” on Friday, adding that the history of the success of amphibious landings was discouraging.
“But China is watching Ukraine closely, as is Taiwan,” Grossman said. “For China, it is clear that there will be international criticism, and the U.S. and its allies will try to decouple it from the international economy, just like with the sanctions against Russia,” he said.