SEOUL — North Korea issued its first warning shot against the Biden administration on Tuesday, denouncing Washington for going forward with joint military exercises with South Korea and raising “a stink” on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea released its statement hours before Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III began meetings with officials in Japan ahead of a trip to South Korea later this week. The visits were meant to strengthen alliances in the region, where the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons and China’s growing influence have been cast as major foreign policy challenges.
The statement was the first official comment on the Biden administration from North Korea.
“We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off a powder smell in our land,” Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, said in a statement carried by state-run North Korean media on Tuesday. “If it wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
Ms. Kim’s statement was the first indication that North Korea has plans to influence the new administration’s policies by raising the prospect of renewed tension on the peninsula, analysts said.
“Kim Yo-jong’s statement was a message of pressure to the United States and South Korea,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “As the senior officials meet this week in Seoul to discuss their North Korea policy, the North is warning them to choose wisely between dialogue and confrontation.”
Ms. Kim, who serves as her brother’s spokeswoman in North Korea’s relations with Seoul and Washington, dedicated most of her statement to criticizing Seoul for pushing ahead with its annual military drills with the United States this month, despite warnings from her brother.
Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin were scheduled to fly to South Korea on Wednesday to meet with President Moon Jae-in and other senior South Korean leaders. How to deal with North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats are high on the agenda. During a meeting with officials in Tokyo, Mr. Blinken said the United States would work with allies to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and that “one element of this is the denuclearization of North Korea.”
The Biden administration has said it is conducting a comprehensive review of American policy on North Korea. Since talks with the former president Donald J. Trump collapsed in 2019, Mr. Kim has said that there was no point in continuing negotiations unless Washington first offered terms that his country could accept, including lifting sanctions and ending United States military drills around the Korean Peninsula in exchange for steps toward denuclearization.
The Biden administration has attempted to reach North Korea through multiple channels in recent weeks, but Pyongyang has been unresponsive, according to the White House. Analysts said the silence was part of the North’s pressure tactic.
“The allies have precious little time to coordinate their approaches on deterrence, sanctions and engagement,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
In her statement, Ms. Kim accused South Korea of opting for “war in March” and “crisis in March,” instead of “warmth in March,” by starting the joint military drills, which the North has described as rehearsals for invasion.
Under Mr. Trump, Washington and Seoul suspended or scaled down the joint military drills to support diplomacy with Mr. Kim. After three meetings, Mr. Trump’s talks with Mr. Kim collapsed without a deal on how to end North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities.
Still, the United States and South Korea greatly reduced the scale of this year’s annual springtime military exercise, conducting it as a computer simulation without any large movement of troops. South Korea said that the drill was minimized this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic and a desire to keep diplomatic momentum with North Korea alive. It called on the North to become more “flexible,” and not to raise tensions, as it has often done in response to the annual drills.
On Tuesday, Ms. Kim called South Korea’s diplomatic wishes “ridiculous, impudent and stupid.” She warned that North-South Korean relations would further deteriorate because Seoul had crossed a “red line.”
“War drill and hostility can never go with dialogue and cooperation,” she said. “They are about to bring a biting wind, not warm wind expected by all, in the spring days of March.”
She did not elaborate on what the “biting wind” would constitute, but she indicated that North Korea may abolish its Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, saying the ruling Workers’ Party organization focused on dialogue with the South “has no reason for its existence.” She also warned that North Korea may consider terminating a joint North-South Korean military agreement that Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon signed in 2018 during a short-live rapprochement.
North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office last year, ending all official dialogue with Seoul. During a party congress speech in January, Mr. Kim warned that returning inter-Korean relations to a “point of peace and prosperity” depended on South Korea’s behavior. North Korea has faulted Seoul for failing to persuade the United States to make concessions for Pyongyang or improve inter-Korean economic ties, regardless of Washington’s wishes.
After his meetings with Mr. Trump failed to lift sanctions, Mr. Kim vowed to further advance his country’s nuclear capabilities. At the party congress, he declared that North Korea would build new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles and make its nuclear warheads lighter and more precise.
Analysts have watched North Korea closely in the past week to see if it would provoke Washington by conducting missile or other weapons tests before the arrival of Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin in Asia.
So far, that has not happened.
“Kim Jong-un’s main priority at the moment is at home, focusing on the economy and improving the people’s lives,” Mr. Yang said.
The North Korean economy has been devastated by the pandemic. And Mr. Kim, who has admitted that his economic policies have failed, said he is focused on building a “self-reliant” economy in the face of international sanctions.
But even if North Korea did not greet Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin with a missile test, Ms. Kim’s statement signaled that the country expects the Biden administration to tread lightly. North Korea will likely start raising tensions soon to gain leverage, said Shin Beom-chul, an analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul.
“They will start by launching conventional short-range missiles, probably thinking of going all the way to launching an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Mr. Shin said. “They are putting pressure on the Biden administration to make concessions as it reviews the U.S. policy on North Korea.”
Lara Jakes contributed reporting from Tokyo.