Amid Korean Tensions, Kerry To visit Seoul

There are expectations that North Korea might test fire a missile or missiles in the next few days in a gesture of defiance. U.S. and South Korean forces are on heightened alert, and relations with the North will be the prime topic of talks when Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Seoul on Friday.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's get an update now on those tensions on the Korean peninsula. South Korea's foreign minister has warned that North Korea could launch a medium-range missile at, quote, "any time." Also, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the North Koreans are skating close to a dangerous line. Both the United States and South Korea have put their forces in South Korea on heightened alert, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due in Seoul tomorrow to assess the situation.

Let's turn now to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's reporting in the South Korean capital. Frank, good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: We keep hearing about this possible missile test. What is that, and what would the purpose be?

LANGFITT: I think the purpose for Kim Jong Un, many people think domestically, he wants to continue to consolidate his position at home. He's a new, young, untested leader. They also think that he wants to show that he's unhappy with tighter U.N. sanctions, and sort of say to the world - and especially the U.S. - his sort of a nuke status quo. North Korea wants and intends to be a nuclear ballistic missile nation.

And in terms of the timing, North Korea usually likes to launch around anniversaries. And on Monday is actually the birthday of the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, who also happens to be the grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong Un.

GREENE: And Frank, when we hear the term test, missile test, I mean, I suppose it means that we wouldn't think it would pose any real danger. It would be just an exercise.

LANGFITT: It is, but it has a political message, as well. The idea with a missile test is they launch it to make sure it works, and ideally it hits the water on the - in this case, probably the other side of Japan. People don't think there's a great risk that it would hit land, and, of course, that would disastrous.

GREENE: Well, North Korea, it seems to be right now, I mean, all this rhetoric and threats on a collision course with the United States and South Korea, are there any off-ramps, any way to diffuse the situation that you see?

LANGFITT: People here in Seoul think so. I talked to a guy named Daniel Pinkston. He's with the International Crisis Group. That's a think-tank. And he says in the last week, he's noticed that the North Korean media is focusing more on things like economic development, and he sees this as a good sign. And he thinks that Kim may be looking for a way out.

Kim, all along, has said, you know, I'm trying to defend the North Korean people against a U.S. attack, and right now, the U.S. and South Korea are in military exercises, and they'll end this month. And here's how Dan Pinkston thinks Kim could spin this to the North Koreans.

DANIEL PINKSTON: I think they will probably claim victory. When the exercise in the South conclude, they will say that, look, the Americans were really going to invade us. They were preparing for it, and they ran away scared because of our nuclear deterrent, our great commander, and now we can celebrate.

GREENE: Okay. That perspective, at least, sounds like it's the North Korean leader just looking for a way to get out of this and still look good at home. But, Frank, I have to tell you, here in the U.S., I mean, a lot of people are asking: Should we be worried about all these threats from North Korea? That - people seem kind of spooked out. I mean, you've been covering this for so long, back to the '90s. Should people be worried?

LANGFITT: People here certainly in Seoul are not worried. And one of the reasons is that if you've followed North Korea for a long time, there has been this sort of crazy rhetoric for a long time. It sounds crazy, but I don't know a single analyst who's covered this country who thinks that this regime is at all crazy. They see it actually as a very careful, calculated regime.

You look at North Korea. It has very little going for it. And if you look over time, they've played a very bad hand very well. They use nuclear blackmail, all these things, so that they can get food and fuel. Their ultimate goals, most people who watch them and speak to North Koreans here, say it's really about survival.

And so all along, while to us it all sounds a little nutty, in a way, it's very kind of carefully calculated. This is not a good regime. They've been bad to their people. They are troublemakers, certainly, in this part of the world. But most people who follow them closely think that this is all very carefully thought out.

GREENE: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt, reporting in Seoul. Thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

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