STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
As if we didn't have enough anxiety, North Korea today fired a ballistic missile that flew over Japan.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
It's the fifth missile launched by North Korea in just over a week. Japan warned residents to take shelter. The launch comes amid a gradual escalation of military activity by the two Koreas, the United States and Japan.
INSKEEP: What's going on here? Well, NPR's Anthony Kuhn is covering it from South Korea. Hey there, Anthony.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: What happened here?
KUHN: Well, South Korea's military says this was an intermediate-range ballistic missile, or IRBM. It flew around 2,800 miles to the east at an altitude of about 600 miles and a top speed of Mach 17. And that puts U.S. military bases on Guam within reach. North Korea has staged about two dozen launches this year, a record. The last time North Korea tested an IRBM was in January, but that time they were very careful not to send it over Japan.
INSKEEP: OK. So this missile flies hundreds of miles overhead, but it's over Japanese airspace. What was the experience like for people on the ground?
KUHN: Well, in Tokyo, as well as in northern Hokkaido and Aomori Prefectures, people heard sirens and warnings. State broadcaster NHK aired this clip sent in from a viewer in Hokkaido. Let's give it a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
KUHN: So this alert warned residents that North Korea had launched a missile and people needed to shelter in a solid building. It's not clear why the alarm was sounded in Tokyo because the missile's flightpath was much further north. On the other hand, another alert sounded some 10 minutes later and told people that the missile had already passed. So residents didn't really have much time to react anyway.
INSKEEP: OK, a few frightening minutes in Japan and, of course, a symbolic act by North Korea. How do the countries around North Korea respond to this now?
KUHN: Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the launch outrageous. He said Japan strongly protests it. Japan's government suggested they could have shot the missile down, but they didn't because it didn't threaten to do much damage. South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol pledged a resolute response. And in a hint of how Seoul and Washington are upping the ante in planning more muscular responses, a South Korean warplane accompanied by U.S. jets dropped precision bombs on an uninhabited island in the Yellow Sea to show that they could just take out the source of any provocation.
INSKEEP: Wow. So a symbolic response to this symbolic attack of sorts. Why is all this happening now?
KUHN: Well, we're seeing a lot of things that have not happened in five years - the first North Korean missile to fly over Japan, the first U.S. aircraft carrier to dock in South Korea and the first joint naval drills involving the U.S., Japan and South Korea, all for the first time since 2017. Five years ago, you had nuclear brinkmanship between then-President Trump and Kim Jong Un. And then there were two years of summits between the two Koreas and the U.S. in 2018 and 2019, in which they tried to find a diplomatic solution. But those have stalled, and Pyongyang is now saying it will not bargain away its nukes.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, after five years of an administration focused on diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, since May we've had a new administration focused on deterring it. The concern is that we are headed for a cycles of escalation and counter-escalation, including more intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests by North Korea.
INSKEEP: Anthony, thanks so much.
KUHN: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.
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