North Korea Seen Lining Up Military Aircraft For Possible Show Satellite images shared exclusively with NPR show North Korean fighters and helicopters massed at a single airbase. It could be another sign of escalating tensions.
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North Korea Seen Lining Up Military Aircraft For Possible Show

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North Korea Seen Lining Up Military Aircraft For Possible Show

North Korea Seen Lining Up Military Aircraft For Possible Show

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In North Korea, dozens of military aircraft have gathered at an airport on the nation's east coast. The planes appear in satellite images which were shared exclusively with NPR. And as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, it may be a show of force and yet another sign of the North's frustration with diplomatic negotiations.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The images were snapped by the commercial satellite company Planet. As of yesterday, they show North Korean fighter jets, helicopters and bombers at an airport in the city of Wonsan. Jenny Town is an analyst who's looked at the images.

JENNY TOWN: There is a long line of military aircraft - of planes just lined up in a straight row all the way across the tarmac.

BRUMFIEL: Town is with the Stimson Center and the website 38 North, which shared the imagery with NPR. The wide variety of aircraft arranged so neatly makes her suspect this is an air show aimed at an audience of one - North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Un - although North Korea undoubtedly knows that U.S. satellites can see it, too.

TOWN: Yeah. I mean, they definitely know we're watching. They want to remind us that they have capabilities.

BRUMFIEL: Joseph Dempsey tracks North Korea's military at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the U.K. He says North Korea's air force is big on paper but also pretty old.

JOSEPH DEMPSEY: It's very dated.

BRUMFIEL: Still, there are a lot of planes here. What's on display probably represents a significant fraction of the North's operational aircraft.

DEMPSEY: Looking at the previous years, this seems big.

BRUMFIEL: Why go big now? Jeffrey Lewis with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies says North Korea is frustrated. Last year, the country closed its nuclear test site and suspended numerous military activities, including an air force demonstration like this one.

JEFFREY LEWIS: The North Koreans have said that they have given the Trump administration a series of gifts - for example, stopping long-range missile testing, stopping nuclear tests. And what they're expecting in return is a transformation in the relationship. And the centerpiece of that for them is the removal of U.S. sanctions.

BRUMFIEL: So far, the Trump administration hasn't budged on sanctions. It wants to see the North commit to giving up all its nuclear weapons before it provides any relief. Negotiations have gone nowhere since a failed summit in Hanoi earlier this year. And meanwhile, Lewis says, the North has been making good progress on testing its shorter-range missiles.

LEWIS: The North Koreans have been pretty busy on the missile front. It's going gangbusters. There are five new systems that we have seen this year.

BRUMFIEL: North Korea has given the U.S. until the end of the year to make some sort of deal. Lewis says if diplomacy continues to go nowhere...

LEWIS: Then I think we're going to see some new fireworks.

BRUMFIEL: Whether those fireworks are missiles or nuclear tests or something else will be up to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.

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