SEOUL—North Korea appears to be continuing preparations for its seventh nuclear test, the U.S. point man on the country said, even as Pyongyang takes over as head of a top nuclear-disarmament forum at the United Nations.
Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, met with his counterparts from South Korea and Japan in Seoul on Friday, and discussed bolstering deterrence against the North.
Washington is prepared to make “both short- and longer-term adjustments to our military posture as appropriate,” Mr. Kim said after the meeting, without giving specifics.
Both the U.S. and South Korea said around the time of President Biden’s visit to Asia last month they had detected signs Pyongyang was preparing for its first nuclear test since 2017, including repeated tests of a device used to trigger a nuclear detonation.
Mr. Biden said after a meeting with new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol in Seoul that the U.S. and South Korea would begin discussions on expanding joint military exercises. The U.S. also pledged to deploy nuclear-capable military assets such as strategic bombers if Seoul faced a crisis with the North.
After the Friday meeting, South Korea’s nuclear envoy, Kim Gunn, said North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons would deepen the North’s isolation and economic woes. Mr. Yoon has said he is willing to hold talks with the North but also wants stronger deterrence.
North Korea this month gained the rotating presidency of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, a body aimed at striking disarmament deals. At a session Thursday, Australia’s ambassador read a joint statement from 48 countries and the European Union expressing concerns about North Korea’s nuclear-weapon and ballistic-missile programs, the Associated Press reported.
North Korea’s ambassador, Han Tae Song, called the comments “nothing new,” according to the AP, and asserted his country’s right to defend itself.
This year, North Korea has tested more than a dozen missiles, including some that can carry nuclear weapons. The tests have included its largest intercontinental ballistic missile, which is capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
At a meeting of the U.N. Security Council last week, the U.S. called for additional sanctions on North Korea in response to its missile launches. China and Russia vetoed the resolution.
Washington will call for more sanctions again if North Korea conducts a nuclear test, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said Tuesday.
North Korea, which conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, is the only country to have detonated nuclear test devices since 2000. Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since 2019.
After the Friday meeting, Mr. Kim and his counterparts also expressed concern over the Covid-19 outbreak in North Korea. They called on Pyongyang to respond to offers of help from South Korea and other countries.
North Korea has reported over 3.9 million fever cases since late April, according to state media, equivalent to around 15% of its population. A poor healthcare infrastructure, widespread malnourishment and an unvaccinated population make North Korea particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.
There is little reliable information about the extent of the outbreak and its impact on the North Korean population. Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, said Wednesday that the Covid infection situation in North Korea is likely “getting worse, not better” despite Pyongyang’s claim that new daily cases of fever are declining.