North-Korea-nuclear-missile-endgame : Consider This from NPR North Korea says it has successfully tested its largest intercontinental ballistic missile. And experts say it could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead to targets in the continental United States.

But what is North Korea's ultimate goal? And how can the United States and its allies deter Pyongyang? Mary Louise Kelly discusses that with NPR correspondent Anthony Kuhn and Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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Amid Missile Tests, What Is North Korea's Endgame?

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over the weekend, state TV in North Korea aired footage of the country's latest missile test.

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KELLY: The regime in Pyongyang said it was a successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Outside experts believe it's the kind of rocket that could potentially be used to attack targets in the continental United States. The rocket, which landed about 120 miles off the coast of Japan, set off alarm bells across the region. The U.S. deployed supersonic bombers and conducted drills with South Korean warplanes the next day. Vice President Kamala Harris, who was in Bangkok for a regional conference, had a speedy response, too.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: This conduct by North Korea most recently is a brazen violation of multiple U.N. security resolutions. It destabilizes security in the region and unnecessarily raises tensions.

KELLY: And yesterday at the U.N...

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LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for being here.

KELLY: ...Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., stood at a podium surrounded by ambassadors of 13 other countries who joined Washington in condemning North Korea, or DPRK.

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THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Albania, Australia, Ecuador, France, Ireland, India...

KELLY: Then Thomas-Greenfield laid out how the situation on the Korean Peninsula is getting worse.

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THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This was DPRK's eighth intercontinental ballistic missile launch this year. Compared with the total number of intercontinental ballistic missile launches prior to 2022, this represents a serious escalation and poses an unequivocal threat to international peace and security.

KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - neither sanctions nor diplomatic pressure have slowed down North Korea's ballistic missile tests. And its quest to develop a nuclear arsenal continues, too. Experts say it's a matter of when, not if, North Korea decides to conduct its first nuclear test in five years. So what is North Korea's ultimate endgame?

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KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Tuesday, November 22.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. When North Korean state TV released footage of the country's latest ballistic missile test, one of the details that stood out was who leader Kim Jong Un decided to bring along to watch the launch.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: At the launch of North Korea's newest long-range missile, with the potential to hit the United States, a strangely tender moment from Kim Jong Un, hand in hand with his young daughter, the first time any of his children have been officially seen in public.

KELLY: That was from NBC's coverage of the launch. South Korean intelligence said it believes the girl was Kim Jong Un's second child. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been following this story closely from Seoul, South Korea. He told me North Korea had never told its people that Kim Jong Un had any children until this weekend and that these images are much more than a strange father-daughter photo op.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The message to North Korea appears to be sending here is that the nukes that North Korea has developed are a sort of national asset which are going to be bequeathed to future generations of North Koreans who will therefore be safer and protected from enemy aggression.

KELLY: The missile launch itself sent a message, too, because it was large enough that experts say it could be used to attack the United States. Here's Anthony again.

KUHN: North Korea claims that this was a successful test of its Hwasong-17, which is the largest missile in its arsenal, launched from a massive 11-axle launcher. And it flew about 620 miles east, but it went up more than 3,700 miles, plunked down about 120 miles off the coast of Japan. Experts believe if they had flattened out the trajectory, it could be capable of reaching anywhere in the continental U.S. and could be capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. We should note that this caps a period of unprecedented activity by North Korea, including more than 65 missile launches so far this year by the U.S.' count.

KELLY: OK. I want to underscore that this was a missile that was tested last week. It did not carry a nuclear warhead. This was not a nuclear test. How many years now has it been since North Korea tested an actual nuclear weapon?

KUHN: It's been five years. The last one was in 2017. And in 2018, Kim Jong Un declared a moratorium on testing. In 2019, at the end of the year, Kim said he was no longer bound by the moratorium. He hasn't broken it yet. But if he plans to advance his nuclear weapons programs and develop the weapons he says he's going to do, he has to test more nuclear warheads. So people are expecting the seventh one any time.

KELLY: This would be the seventh. OK. Has North Korea, Kim Jong Un or anyone else in the regime said what the goal is here with all the testing? Like, what is the big-picture strategy?

KUHN: Well, after the most recent test, the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper put it this way. The goal is to prevent children ending up on the streets, foraging for food after losing their mothers in enemy bombardments. Now, that's a reference to the Korean War. And what they're saying they want is a deterrent against nuclear attack or invasion by the U.S. and South Korea. And they want a more credible deterrent than they had in 2017, which means new weapons such as tactical nuclear weapons capable of hitting military targets in South Korea. They may also want to strong-arm or extort concessions out from the U.S., such as sanctions relief or threaten South Korea into submission. Also, we should note that Kim Jong Un said in September that he has no intention of bargaining away his country's nuclear status. And since nobody is succeeding in getting Kim to freeze his nuclear programs, much less roll them back, we may just have to wait until he's finished work on his arsenal and see what he does with it.

KELLY: All right. So if part of this strategy may be wanting to strong-arm, to use your word, what has the reaction been from the United States, from American allies in the region?

KUHN: Well, in recent years, the reaction has been to downplay missile launches and try to leave room for diplomacy. Now, under a new South Korean administration, in the words of the new South Korean president, they want to punish North Korea with military drills. The U.S. has also begun rotating more aircraft carriers, strategic bombers and submarines to the area to deter provocations and reassure allies. The U.S. has ramped up cooperation between the U.S., South Korea and Japan, but Seoul and Tokyo still don't really trust each other. There's a limit how far they can go there. Seoul and Washington still say they're ready to negotiate and even offer economic aid if North Korea denuclearizes, but Pyongyang's not biting at that. And this year, the U.N. Security Council has convened 10 meetings following North Korean missile launches.

KELLY: Ten.

KUHN: But these failed to produce any unanimous response. And China and Russia have basically shielded North Korea in the UNSC.

KELLY: And last thing, I suppose no discussion of what's happening in the region would be complete without talking about China. Where is Beijing on these North Korean missile tests?

KUHN: Well, officially, China says it still wants a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, but most of its talking points are pretty close to Pyongyang's. China says the U.S. should address North Korea's legitimate security concerns. It should halt joint military drills with South Korea and ease sanctions on Pyongyang. And like North Korea, China actually is also in the process of upgrading its own nuclear arsenal. It's saying it needs to upgrade its nukes to keep up with the U.S. It distrusts arms control negotiations as a sort of a trick. It sees its nuclear arsenal as a really indispensable part of its status as a major power. So China not only empathizes with its neighbor, its own nuclear policies are also a source of friction with the U.S..

KELLY: So many moving parts there. We've been speaking with NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thank you.

KUHN: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. Well, listening along to Anthony's reporting with us has been Victor Cha. He is the senior vice president for Asia and Korea chair for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Victor Cha, welcome back to All Things Considered.

VICTOR CHA: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: You just heard me ask my colleague in Seoul about North Korea's possible endgame. Let me put the same question to you. What do you think it is?

CHA: Well, I think it's everything that Anthony said. And the only other objective I would add is that I think by threatening the United States homeland with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, North Korea also wants to try to raise doubt in the minds of Japanese and South Koreans about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence commitments to its allies in the region, such that South Korea will be weaker. It will feel like it doesn't have a strong ally in the United States. I think those concerns are probably not true in the sense that the United States and South Korea have been working very hard on bolstering the credibility of extended deterrence through some of these exercises that Anthony mentioned.

KELLY: Talk to me about timing and whether North Korea might have concluded that the U.S. is distracted by internal divisions, political divisions, economic challenges, might have concluded the West as a whole is distracted by war in Ukraine, among other challenges. Does North Korea see a window here to accelerate testing?

CHA: Oh, I think they certainly do. There are a couple of things. I think the first, as you mentioned, the war in Europe, and then also the situation in the Taiwan Straits clearly has preoccupied the Biden administration. And North Korea sees an opportunity there to carry out these tests because they they know the Chinese and the Russians are not going to support U.N. Security Council resolutions as they have in the past. The other is that I think for the North Koreans, they see opportunity whenever U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relations are not going well. They see opportunity in drawing closer to China and Russia. When relations are better between the United States and China, they constantly fear abandonment. They constantly fear that the United States and China, the two big powers, are going to cut a deal that sells North Korea down the river. So I think they see two opportunities here. One is the distraction of the war in Europe and the situation in the Taiwan Straits. And then the competitive poor relations between the United States and China makes them believe they're going to get a lot of support from Beijing.

KELLY: Well, let's talk about leverage. If the U.S. would prefer that North Korea not build a missile capable of reaching the United States, what, if anything, can the U.S. do about it?

CHA: Well, it is. It's a very difficult situation. I mean, I think the increased exercising is important for defense and deterrence, but it's not going to stop the missile testing and the missile launching. The only thing that really has historically stopped the testing has been when they've been engaged in some sort of negotiation with the United States. They do not do as much testing, and they don't do as many provocations. Unfortunately, the North Koreans don't seem to be interested in any negotiations. The Biden administration has reached out many times to try to get a negotiation or even a dialogue going with North Korea, and they simply do not answer the phone.

KELLY: And what about China? Where does China's leverage stand at this point and how might they use it?

CHA: I think China has a lot of leverage on North Korea in terms of their economic capabilities. But the Chinese clearly don't appear to be willing to play ball. In many ways, they've decoupled from the North Korea problem and said, you know, this is basically your problem. When I was in government, we were doing the six-party talks. China was very much involved. They actually hosted the denuclearization talks. That doesn't seem to be the case today. The Chinese are basically saying to the Biden administration, this is your problem. We're not helping you. And that's the price that you pay for taking this, you know, much more competitive strategic competition relationship with the Chinese. So they're really using it against us rather than using it against the North Koreans.

KELLY: So without wishing to be alarmist, does all of this add up, in your view, to make a seventh nuclear test by North Korea not just possible, but probable?

CHA: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think that the - you know, they've tested the Hwasong-17, as Anthony said, which is their largest intercontinental ballistic missile, you know, with the daughter there and everything. And all of our commercial satellite imagery shows that the preparations at the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri have all been completed. And it's just a matter of when the North Korean leader wants to do the test. And I would imagine that they would do that as sort of the culmination of this R&D and this missile testing operation exercise that they've been engaged in all year.

KELLY: That was Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also a professor at Georgetown University. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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