Challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and China’s growing influence loom large in the Biden administration’s first Cabinet-level trip abroad.

In North Korea’s first comments directed at the Biden administration, Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister criticised the United States and South Korea for holding military exercises and warned the U.S. against further provocations if it wants a “good night’s sleep for the next four years.”

Kim Yo Jong’s statement on Tuesday was issued as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Asia to talk to U.S. allies Japan and South Korea about North Korea and other regional issues. They have meetings in Tokyo on Tuesday before speaking to officials in Seoul the next day.

North Korea would consider abandoning a 2018 bilateral agreement on reducing military tensions and abolish a decades-old ruling party unit tasked to handle inter-Korean relations if it no longer had to cooperate with the South, said Kim Yo Jong, a senior official who handles inter-Korean affairs for the North.

She said the North would also consider scrapping an office that handled South Korean tours to the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain, which Seoul suspended in 2008 after a North Korean guard fatally shot a South Korean tourist.

“We will keep an eye on (South Korea’s) attitude and behaviour, and if they become more provocative, we could take exceptional measures,” she said in her statement published in Pyongyang’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to issue a word of advice to the new U.S. administration, which is so eager to give off a smell of gunpowder in our land from across the ocean,” she said. “If they want to have a good night’s sleep for the next four years, it would be good for them not to do things that would prevent them from sleeping properly from the start.”

Challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and China’s growing influence loom large in the Biden administration’s first Cabinet-level trip abroad, part of a larger effort to bolster U.S. influence and clam concerns about the U.S. role in Asia following four years of Donald Trump’s “America first” approach.

U.S. response

A senior official from the Biden administration said on Saturday that U.S. officials have tried to reach out to North Korea through multiple channels since last month, but have yet to receive a response. The official was not authorised to publicly discuss the diplomatic outreach and spoke on condition of anonymity.

“This is Kim Yo Jong continuing to be the tip of the wedge North Korea tries to drive between South Korea and its U.S. ally,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korea’s latest threats mean the allies have precious little time to coordinate their approaches on deterrence, sanctions and engagement.”

Biden’s presidency begins as Kim Jong Un faces perhaps the toughest moment of his nine-year rule. His country’s battered economy has decayed further amid pandemic border closures while his summitry with Mr. Trump failed to lift crippling sanctions.

While Mr. Kim has vowed to strengthen his nuclear weapons program in recent political speeches, he also has said the fate of U.S. relations depends on Washington’s actions.

The 2018 military agreement, which had been the most tangible outcome from the three summits between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, requires the countries to take steps to reduce conventional military threats, such as establishing border buffers in land and sea and no-fly zones.

But inter-Korean relations have lain in ruin amid the stalemate in the nuclear diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang.

The South Korean and U.S militaries began annual military exercises last week that continue through Thursday. The drills are command post exercises and computerised simulation and don’t involve field training. They said they held the downsized drills after reviewing factors like the status of COVID-19 and diplomatic efforts to resume the nuclear talks with North Korea.

But Kim Yo Jong said even the smaller drills are an act of hostility toward the North. In the past, the North has often responded with U.S.-South Korea drills with missile tests.

“War rehearsals cannot coexist with dialogue, hostility cannot coexist with cooperation,” she said.

Boo Seung-chan, a spokesperson from South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said the combined drills were defensive in nature and called for the North to show a more “flexible attitude” that would be constructive to stabilising peace on the Korean Peninsula. He said the South’s military wasn’t detecting any unusual signs of military activity from the North.

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