How North Korea's Nuclear Tests Could Get Even More Terrifying : Parallels North Korea has so far tested its missiles and its nukes separately. But some experts worry Pyongyang may decide to put the two together into a single test.
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How North Korea's Nuclear Tests Could Get Even More Terrifying

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How North Korea's Nuclear Tests Could Get Even More Terrifying

How North Korea's Nuclear Tests Could Get Even More Terrifying

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Frightened dog, Rocket Man, rogue, madman - this exchange of insults seems like it could belong to a remake of the political satire "Dr. Strangelove."

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel explains, Kim Jong Un's statement hints at something that would be a lot more troubling than insults.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In between the Rocket Man and the dotard stuff, Kim promised this - quote, "a corresponding highest level of hardline countermeasure in history," unquote. So what does that mean? It could refer to...

JEFFREY LEWIS: A test in which North Korea puts a live nuclear weapon on a real, live missile and then fires that sucker presumably over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean where it will detonate for all to see.

BRUMFIEL: That's Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He says a giant mushroom cloud over the Pacific would be troubling.

LEWIS: If you care about peace and security and the environment and the dolphins...

BRUMFIEL: It's a terrible idea. Until now, North Korea has tested nukes deep underground. It's tested its missiles separately with dummy warheads...

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

BRUMFIEL: ...Like earlier this month when it sent an intermediate range ballistic missile far into the Pacific.

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BRUMFIEL: So what if next time there's a real nuke on top? Alex Wellerstein is a historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology. He says such a test would be extraordinary.

ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Live-fire ballistic missile tests with nuclear warheads on them are pretty rare.

BRUMFIEL: In fact the United States has only once launched something with a real nuke. It was 1962. The navy fired a live Polaris A-2 missile from a submarine.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: As all hands waited for the task force commander's clearance to fire, the missile control center and Ethan Allen symbolized the tense anticipation of the entire team.

BRUMFIEL: In this archival footage, they look nervous. And they had good reason.

WELLERSTEIN: It was pretty risky. There's a lot that can go wrong.

BRUMFIEL: Wellerstein says missiles can explode. They can veer off course. In the end, the U.S. test worked.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The operational test of the Polaris weapon system with a nuclear warhead was completely successful.

BRUMFIEL: But North Korean missiles frequently fail. Lewis, who studied the missile program, says putting a nuke on top of one of these missiles could go really wrong.

LEWIS: The worst-case scenario is it blows up on the launch pad, and the weapon detonates, and you kill some enormous number of people.

BRUMFIEL: Or it could fall on Japan or be mistaken by the South Koreans for a real attack. The threat of accidents and miscalculations is high, and Lewis says at the heart of it is the rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.

LEWIS: This is a self-inflicted crisis that the two of these men, having deeply invested their egos in this dispute, can't find a way to cool off. And they just keep pushing each other.

BRUMFIEL: The question is, how far will they go? Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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