ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
North Korea may conduct another nuclear test this weekend. President Trump has sent U.S. warships to the area as a show of force and that has everyone in the region feeling more tense than usual. China says this tension must be stopped before it reaches an irreversible and unmanageable stage. Trump says the North Korean problem will be taken care of. In a moment we'll hear more about North Korea's weapons capabilities. First to NPR's Rob Schmitz in Shanghai. Hi, Rob.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Explain the reason that people anticipate a possible nuclear test by North Korea this weekend.
SCHIMTZ: Well, tomorrow, April 15 is a major holiday on the North Korean calendar. It's the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung. He's the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un. And it's a day that in previous years North Korea has staged big parades and weapons tests. Though, no nuclear tests have ever been conducted on this holiday.
But in the past several weeks, commercial satellite images show a lot of activity at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear testing site. And this is the same site where North Korea completed its past five nuclear tests. And all this recent activity shows signs that the North is getting ready for another one, which, like all the others, is a clear breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
SHAPIRO: On the U.S. side, President Trump has taken actions that his predecessors have not in other parts of the world. He ordered a missile strike on Syria. Yesterday, the U.S. dropped one of the largest non-nuclear bombs in the American arsenal on ISIS forces in Afghanistan. Have these actions - this willingness to take these steps - has this worried leaders in East Asia?
SCHIMTZ: Definitely. You know, the United States, as you mentioned, ordered an aircraft carrier - the Carl Vinson - and several other warships to the Korean Peninsula and so has Japan. So, you know, as you mentioned, the new U.S. president has already ordered a missile strike in Syria. And he's talked and tweeted pretty tough on North Korea saying that he'll solve the North Korea problem without saying what he means by that. He's also got a secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who's called an end to what he called a policy of patience on North Korea. So this is tense.
And for its part, North Korea is talking pretty tough, too. The vice foreign minister told reporters today that North Korea is ready for war with the U.S. if that's what the U.S. wants and that North Korea will test weapons whenever it feels like it. So the situation here is more worrisome than it's been in years, and many here are on pins and needles wondering what's going to happen tomorrow. And of course, Seoul, the South Korean capital, one of the most populated cities on the planet sits less than 50 miles away from the North Korean border and is incredibly vulnerable if a war breaks out. So tensions are high, and many people in the region are pretty worried.
SHAPIRO: China is such a crucial player in all of this. Tell us more about the role that they're playing.
SCHIMTZ: So China has repeatedly called this week for both sides to stand down. China is North Korea's only major ally and trading partner. Ninety percent of all trade in North Korea is done with China. China has always opposed the North's nuclear weapons program.
But, you know, the last thing China wants is a war on the Korean Peninsula and the potential collapse of the North Korean regime. That could lead to millions of impoverished North Koreans streaming across China's border, and it could lead to South Korean and U.S. troops positioning themselves along that same border. And that's a nightmare scenario for China. So China would prefer the status quo. But even China seems unable to calm down the rhetoric from both sides in this case.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz in Shanghai. Thanks, Rob.
SCHIMTZ: Thanks, Ari.
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