MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
As President Biden heads to South Korea and Japan this week, officials in Seoul say a long-range missile test by North Korea could come soon. Pyongyang has already conducted 16 tests so far this year. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, it is not just North Korea's growing arsenal of nuclear weapons that is giving foreign governments pause. It's the North's apparent willingness to use them.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: North Korea's latest missiles mounted on trucks rolled through Pyongyang's Kim Il sung Square last month in a military parade. Leader Kim Jong un, wearing a white uniform, addressed the event.
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SUPREME LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).
KUHN: The basic mission of our nuclear forces is to deter a war, he said. But our nuclear weapons can never be limited to the sole mission of deterring war. If any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state, he added, our nuclear forces will have to decisively accomplish their unexpected second mission. Park Won-gon, a North Korea expert at Ewha Women's University in Seoul, says that based on North Korea's previous statements, those interests could include all sorts of things.
PARK WON-GON: The vital national interest for North Korea includes raising the question about these North Korea's human rights violations and even the sanction on North Korea.
KUHN: Kim Jong un's remarks suggest a shift away from his previous pledges not to use his nukes first. The U.S. does not rule out first use, either. North Korea is building both short-range nuclear weapons to target U.S. and South Korean forces in Asia and long-range ones to threaten the U.S. mainland. Kim's sister, Kim Yo jong, who is also a powerful official, added last month that Pyongyang could use these nukes not as a last resort but at the beginning of a conflict to demoralize the enemy or simply to conserve the North's military strength. Jeon Kyung-joo, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government think tank in Seoul, says Kim Yo jong's words shed new light on Pyongyang's strategy.
JEON KYUNG-JOO: (Through interpreter) The credibility of the threat due to their capabilities has increased in tandem with the credibility of their intentions.
KUHN: Jeon believes the likelihood of Kim actually using his nukes is very low unless he thinks he faces a conflict with U.S. and South Korean forces, which have an advantage in conventional arms. She says Pyongyang's ultimate goal remains to unify the peninsula under its own rule.
JEON: (Through interpreter) It remains a very important goal and one that must be achieved over the very long term. But they must think that recognition as a nuclear state is a necessary first step towards that goal.
KUHN: While South Korea does not have nuclear weapons, it has plenty of missiles, some of which may be aimed right at Kim Jong un.
JEFFREY LEWIS: South Korea has been very clear that the intention of this force is to decapitate the North Korean leadership in a crisis, which is incredibly escalatory.
KUHN: Jeffrey Lewis is an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.
LEWIS: So you have a situation where the parties to the conflict, South Korea and North Korea, both think that they are going to go first, and one of them is wrong about that. That's very destabilizing.
KUHN: North Korea's missile and nuclear tests will be high on the agenda of President Biden's summit meeting with President Yoon Suk Yeol. Seoul says it even has a contingency plan ready in case the North conducts any tests during the summit. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
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