Nuclear Challenges Continue In North Korea, Iran

The nuclear activities of both North Korea and Iran are in the news. North Korea is preparing for a long-range rocket launch later this week, and new satellite photos indicate Pyongyang may be preparing for an underground nuclear test as well. In Iran, Tehran has agreed to hold talks on its nuclear program with the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in Istanbul late this week. They would be the first such talks in more than a year, but prospects for success seem dim.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The global effort to stop nuclear proliferation faces two big challenges this week, in North Korea and Iran. Sometime between Thursday and Sunday, North Korea is expected to launch a long-range rocket. Pyongyang claims it's a peaceful launch to put a weather satellite in orbit. But the U.S. and many other nations believe it's a test of a long-range missile that could eventually carry a nuclear warhead.

There's also evidence that North Korea may be preparing another underground nuclear test. Also, later this week, Iran is set to resume nuclear talks with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. NPR's Mike Shuster is here to talk about all of this. Hi, Mike.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, what do we know about the North Korean rocket launch?

SHUSTER: Well, this is what we know. It's a three-stage rocket, and there were pictures taken of it yesterday by international journalists who were permitted to visit the launch site, which is in northwestern North Korea. And their pictures show that there are three stages. They've been erected on the launch pad. The next key step is the fueling of the rocket. It uses liquid fuel, which is dangerous and unstable, so fueling has to be done shortly before the launch.

Once fueling is completed, the lunch can be expected in a day or two. The flight path goes straight south, skirting the west coast of South Korea. It avoids Japan, and it flies just south of Okinawa. And if all three stages ignite properly, which they haven't done in two previous tests, but if they ignite properly, the last stage should fall into the Pacific east of the Philippines.

I should add that this was all planned to occur in the middle of North Korean celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, who is the founder of North Korea, of course. He is the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, the current leader who took power in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

SIEGEL: And, Mike, does the U.S. suppose this is because it fears that this is a missile that could be outfitted at some point with a nuclear warhead?

SHUSTER: It does. There was an agreement between North Korea and the United States in February that committed Pyongyang to suspend its nuclear and missile tests and to freeze its enrichment of uranium in exchange for considerable amount of food. The U.S. says North Korea broke that agreement within two weeks when it announced the rocket launch. The U.S. says it won't deliver the food if the launch takes place.

SIEGEL: And what's the reaction of nations in the region?

SHUSTER: Well, Japan and South Korea have condemned plans for the launch. And both said that they are deploying missile defenses, including Aegis cruisers and destroyers. They're threatening to shoot down the North Korean rocket if the test flight fails and threatens their territory.

North Korea responded to that by saying if they do shoot at the rocket or pieces of the rocket, it would be a declaration of war. Now, this is typical bellicose rhetoric from North Korea. We hear it a lot. China, by the way, Robert, is also publicly against the launch but hasn't taken any other steps.

SIEGEL: Now, that's the North Korean missile launch. What about the possibility of another North Korean nuclear test?

SHUSTER: Over the weekend, there were new satellite photos that surface that showed there are some kind of excavation and piles of dirt taking place at North Korea's underground test facility, which is in northeast North Korea. This is not conclusive evidence that a test is being planned, but there have been similar activities detected at this test site in 2006 and 2009 when North Korea carried out its first and second underground nuclear tests.

SIEGEL: And what about the talks with Iran - the U.N. talks with Iran?

SHUSTER: The talks with Iran are between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. They've been very difficult to arrange. They're set now for Istanbul late this week. There were no hard and fast preconditions on either side, but it's known the U.S. wants Iran to end its production of 20 percent enriched uranium and shut down the underground enrichment facility at Fordow.

Twenty percent enriched uranium is seen as a key step to acquiring bomb-grade uranium. Iran is hinting it would eventually stop that enrichment, but only if it is permitted to continue making low enriched uranium, which is prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Mike.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mike Shuster.

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