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What the recent missile launches from North Korea could mean


North Korea's nuclear weapons program is, like most things in North Korea, shrouded in secrecy. So it is not 100% clear whether the regime in Pyongyang has the kind of long-range missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the U.S. mainland. But twice this month, North Korea has test launched a rocket that experts say could potentially reach the United States. The tests have been widely condemned by the U.S. and allies. That has not stopped the north from continuing to develop its missile arsenal. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following all this from his base in Seoul, South Korea. Hey there, Anthony.


KELLY: I want to start with the latest North Korean missile test. This was Friday. What do we know about it?

KUHN: North Korea claims that this was a successful test of its Hwasong-17, which is the largest missile in its arsenal, launched from a massive 11-axle launcher. And it flew about 620 miles east, but it went up more than 3,700 miles, plunked down about 120 miles off the coast of Japan. Experts believe if they had flattened out the trajectory, it could be capable of reaching anywhere in the continental U.S. and could be capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. We should note that this caps a period of unprecedented activity by North Korea, including more than 65 missile launches so far this year by the U.S.' count.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things is that leader Kim Jong Un took his wife and daughter to watch the launch. Now, North Korea has never told its people that Kim has any children. South Korean intelligence believes he has three, of which this was the second one. And the message North Korea appears to be sending here is that the nukes that North Korea has developed are a sort of national asset, which are going to be bequeathed to future generations of North Koreans who will therefore be safer and protected from enemy aggression.

KELLY: OK. I want to underscore that this was a missile that was tested last week. It did not carry a nuclear warhead. This was not a nuclear test. How many years now has it been since North Korea tested an actual nuclear weapon?

KUHN: It's been five years. It was in - the last one was in 2017. And in 2018, Kim Jong Un declared a moratorium on testing. In 2019, at the end of the year, Kim said he was no longer bound by the moratorium. He hasn't broken it yet. But if he plans to advance his nuclear weapons programs and develop the weapons he says he's going to do, he has to test more nuclear warheads. So people are expecting the seventh one any time.

KELLY: This would be the seventh. OK. Has North Korea, Kim Jong Un or anyone else in the regime said what the goal is here with all the testing? Like, what is the big-picture strategy?

KUHN: Well, after the most recent test, the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper put it this way. The goal is to prevent children ending up on the streets foraging for food after losing their mothers in enemy bombardments. Now, that's a reference to the Korean War. And what they're saying they want is a deterrent against nuclear attack or invasion by the U.S. and South Korea. Also, we should note that Kim Jong Un said in September that he has no intention of bargaining away his country's nuclear status. And since nobody is succeeding in getting Kim to freeze his nuclear programs, much less roll them back, we may just have to wait until he's finished work on his arsenal and see what he does with it.

KELLY: We've been speaking with NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thank you.

KUHN: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. Well, listening along to Anthony's reporting with us has been Victor Cha. He is the senior vice president for Asia and Korea chair for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Victor Cha, welcome back to All THINGS CONSIDERED.

VICTOR CHA: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: You just heard me ask my colleague in Seoul about North Korea's possible endgame. Let me put the same question to you. What do you think it is?

CHA: Well, I think it's everything that Anthony said. And the only other objective I would add is that I think, by threatening the United States' homeland with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, North Korea also wants to try to raise doubt in the minds of Japanese and South Koreans about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence commitments to its allies in the region, such that South Korea will be weaker.

KELLY: Talk to me about timing and whether North Korea might have concluded that the U.S. is distracted by internal divisions, political divisions, economic challenges - might have concluded the West as a whole is distracted by war in Ukraine, among other challenges. Does North Korea see a window here to accelerate testing?

CHA: Oh, I think they certainly do. There are a couple of things - I think the first, as you mentioned, the war in Europe. And then also, the situation in the Taiwan Straits clearly has preoccupied the Biden administration, and North Korea sees an opportunity there to carry out these tests because they know the Chinese and the Russians are not going to support U.N. Security Council resolutions as they have in the past. The other is that, I think, for the North Koreans, they see opportunity whenever U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relations are not going well. They see opportunity in drawing closer to China and Russia. When relations are better between the United States and China, they constantly fear abandonment. They constantly fear that the United States and China - the two big powers - are going to cut a deal that sells North Korea down the river.

So I think they see two opportunities here. One is the distraction of the war in Europe and the situation in the Taiwan Straits, and then the competitive poor relations between the United States and China makes them believe they're going to get a lot of support from Beijing.

KELLY: Well, let's talk about leverage. If the U.S. would prefer that North Korea not build a missile capable of reaching the United States, what, if anything, can the U.S. do about it?

CHA: Well, it is - it's a very difficult situation. I mean, I think the increased exercising is important for defense and deterrence, but it's not going to stop the missile testing and the missile launching. The only thing that really has historically stopped the testing has been when they've been engaged in some sort of negotiation with the United States. They do not do as much testing, and they don't do as many provocations. Unfortunately, the North Koreans don't seem to be interested in any negotiations. The Biden administration has reached out many times to try to get a negotiation or even a dialogue going with North Korea, and they simply do not answer the phone.

KELLY: Oh. And what about China? Where does China's leverage stand at this point, and how might they use it?

CHA: I think China has a lot of leverage on North Korea in terms of their economic capabilities, but the Chinese clearly don't appear to be willing to play ball. In many ways, they've decoupled from the North Korea problem and said, you know, this is basically your problem. We're not helping you, and that's the price that you pay for taking this, you know, much more competitive strategic competition relationship with the Chinese. So they're really using it against us rather than using it against the North Koreans.

KELLY: So without wishing to be alarmist, does all of this add up, in your view, to make a seventh nuclear test by North Korea not just possible, but probable?

CHA: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think that the - you know, they've tested the Hwasong-17, as Anthony said, which is their largest intercontinental ballistic missile, you know, with the daughter there and everything. And all of our commercial satellite imagery shows that the preparations at the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri have all been completed, and it's just a matter of when the North Korean leader wants to do the test. And I would imagine that they would do that as sort of the culmination of this R&D and this missile testing operation exercise that they've been engaged in all year.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also a professor at Georgetown University. Professor Cha, thank you.

CHA: Thank you.

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Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Erika Ramirez
Gabe O'Connor
William Troop
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.