Why Analysts Aren't Laughing At These Silly North Korean Photos : Parallels North Korea's bombastic propaganda and unpredictable leadership have made it a topic of frequent parody. But experts say it's time to take the nation's nuclear capabilities more seriously.
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Why Analysts Aren't Laughing At These Silly North Korean Photos

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Why Analysts Aren't Laughing At These Silly North Korean Photos

Why Analysts Aren't Laughing At These Silly North Korean Photos

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American comedians make jokes about North Korea all the time. That's even as the North keeps launching missiles and rockets on an almost daily basis. Just this morning, it fired five short-range projectiles into the sea. On Friday, it conducted an intermediate-range ballistic missile test. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports all this recent activity may be something to start taking more seriously.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Parodies of North Korea really stick. Even Bruce Klingner, a North Korean expert at the Heritage Foundation, remembers the film "Team America: World Police." Its villain is a marionette version of former dictator Kim Jong Il.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE")

TREY PARKER: (As Kim Jong Il) We've been through this a dozen times. I don't have any weapons of mass destruction. OK, Hans?

BRUMFIEL: Now Klingner knows better than anyone North Korea really is dangerous. He's spent years analyzing the hermit kingdom for the CIA. But sometimes it just kind of slips in there.

BRUCE KLINGNER: In the back of your mind, you just have the image of, you know, Kim Jong Il's puppet singing "I'm So Ronery."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE")

PARKER: (As Kim Jong Il, singing) I'm so ronery (ph), so ronery.

KLINGNER: It just seems that they couldn't possibly be a threat, they're just too funny.

BRUMFIEL: North Korea's own bombastic propaganda doesn't help things. Here's a video showing their latest satellite launch in February.

KLINGNER: It's kind of like 1950s Soviet Union on steroids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

BRUMFIEL: But over the past few months, experts have stopped laughing. Melissa Hanham studies North Korea's nuclear program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. She says there's been a lot happening in the first quarter of 2016, starting with an underground nuclear weapons test in January.

MELISSA HANHAM: So we had the nuclear test, we had a photo display of a submarine-launched ballistic missile test, we had a space launch, the satellite went into orbit. And finally, now they've just shown off this potential warhead.

BRUMFIEL: The potential warhead she's talking about appears in a photo released by the North Korean government. It shows the son of Kim Jong Il; the country's current dictator, Kim Jong Un. He's posing in front of a shiny silver ball that's on a chintzy red tablecloth. The ball is supposed to be a miniaturized nuke capable of fitting on a missile. But frankly, it looks kind of silly.

HANHAM: Yeah, a lot of people started calling it the disco ball.

BRUMFIEL: There were disco inferno jokes on Twitter. But to experts, it wasn't that funny because even though it's probably a model, some of the details look real.

HANHAM: They definitely know what a bomb looks like. I mean, that model didn't come out of thin air. It's not a weird unicorn or anything. It has roots in the truth.

BRUMFIEL: The North's progress has gotten the U.S. military's attention. Here's an exchange at a Senate hearing earlier this month between lawmakers and Adm. Bill Gortney, who heads the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL GORTNEY: It's the prudent decision on my part to assume that he has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM. And I have the ability...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Today.

GORTNEY: Today.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In range of the continental United States.

GORTNEY: In range - all of the states of the United States.

BRUMFIEL: This is a change in tone from just a few years ago, when the U.S. intelligence community said that North Korea didn't have all the tools it needed to send a nuke over American soil. Both Klingner and Hanham say there's no need to panic. The newest ballistic missile is untested. But Klingner also says it's clear North Korea's making a lot of progress.

KLINGNER: They're on a path to achieving a nuclear warhead capability that they can deliver to the U.S. and Japan and South Korea.

BRUMFIEL: And there's nothing funny about it. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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