STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Exactly what is North Korea doing now? The country says it tested a new tactical weapon. Whatever that is, it would be the first test of any note since nuclear negotiations broke down between President Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from South Korea. Anthony, Hi there.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.
INSKEEP: I just want to note this phrase in the North Korean statement - tactical weapon. Just by dictionary definition, I mean, that can be a .22-caliber rifle, could be a small nuclear weapon, could be a laser, a drone. It could be about anything. So what evidence is there of what may have happened here?
KUHN: Well, they said it had a guidance system, and they said it had a powerful warhead. So that suggests something like a short-range, a missile, a rocket or an artillery shell. But we haven't seen any pictures of it, so it's really impossible to say.
What analysts note is that this thing is probably short-range and cannot hit the U.S. At best, it can hit South Korea. From the language in North Korean media, they tried to be saying that this represents a technical breakthrough, some new capability for them. But what it exactly it is, we do not know.
INSKEEP: And the word nuclear is never used in the North Korean statement. Is that correct?
KUHN: That's right. It's not in there. It's pretty clear it's not a nuclear device.
INSKEEP: Yet the North Koreans must surely know, when they make an announcement of this kind, that it will be seen as a provocation in a tense situation.
KUHN: That's correct. Some provocations get a rise out of the U.S. and South Korea; some do not. In November of last year, they tested another thing, which they called an ultramodern new weapon, and it did not get a response. There hasn't really been a response out of Washington or Seoul yet, although South Korea convened a meeting of its National Security Council. It seems to be mostly a political message to signal impatience with the lack of progress on nuclear negotiations.
INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that because we should review how we got here. Remember that earlier this year, there was a summit - a second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. And we can recall, I guess, a moment of optimism before that summit began. Kim himself spoke to foreign journalists for the first time, I believe. And he said this. Let's listen to a bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).
INSKEEP: We're hearing him say that he's going to try his best in this summit and there will be good results, hopefully. Instead, of course, the summit fell apart at that time. If this test is any guide, how much worse have negotiations become? How much worse have conditions become?
KUHN: Well, since the summit, what we're hearing from Kim Jong Un is real ambivalence about the negotiating process. He still believes that he can get something, some sort of sanctions relief or a concession, from President Donald Trump. But he clearly sees that the U.S. line is hardened, they're not willing to go at this one step at a time. They want to get it done all at once.
And so Kim Jong Un has essentially said, we'll give it one more try this year - by year's end - but if not, forget it. And his other options are a less U.S.-friendly foreign policy and possibly even a return to testing nuclear weapons or missiles. But we're not there yet. He has not signaled he's pulling out of negotiations.
INSKEEP: Why is Kim Jong Un also saying - send me some other American negotiator; I don't want to talk anymore to Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, who's been a leading figure here?
KUHN: They have identified Secretary of State Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton as hard-liners who are preventing them from getting a deal. They still believe their best hope is Donald Trump, but they're not holding out a lot of hope. They do not want to engage in working-level deals. They want to cut one right at the top, top-down with Donald Trump. And they think that's their best hope even though they're not super optimistic.
INSKEEP: Anthony, thanks for keeping all of this in perspective - really valuable.
KUHN: Sure thing, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in South Korea today.
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