STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
North Korea launched two ballistic missiles on Thursday morning, quite some time ago now with the time difference. It's the second test in less than a week by North Korea. Pyongyang tested a couple of other missiles on Sunday. And this poses a challenge to the Biden administration, which is trying to figure out how to approach North Korea, if at all. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul, South Korea, covering the story. Anthony, welcome back.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what exactly happened?
KUHN: Well, the South Korean military is saying is that today's launches appear to be of short-range ballistic missiles. And that's different from Sunday, when they launched cruise missiles. Now, cruise missiles are actually not barred by United Nations Security Council resolutions. And President Biden said after that that, basically, it looks like business as usual for North Korea. But ballistic missiles are barred. They can carry nuclear payloads sometimes. And so President Biden will have a tougher time shrugging those off. And these would be the first ballistic missiles North Korea has tested since March of 2020. We should remember they have not tested any ICBMs or nukes since 2017, but continue to try to improve their other military capabilities, like missiles that can hit anywhere on the peninsula, on the Korean peninsula, that can evade defenses and that can also not be hit so easily like submarine-launched missiles.
INSKEEP: I think we have to assume that when North Korea conducts a missile test, they know the world will know and that it's a kind of provocation. Why send that signal now?
KUHN: Well, the timing is not actually so obvious. The only thing it really coincides with today is the Olympic torch relay, which, of course, Japan is not happy with. It comes after Secretary of State Blinken and Defense Secretary Austin visited Seoul. And it comes after annual U.S.-South Korea military drills. And if they had staged the test then, it would have been a stronger message. North Korean state media hasn't said anything. So we'll have to wait. But basically, you know, this could have come at any time because Pyongyang's message has remained consistent since negotiations break - broke down after the 2019 Hanoi summit. The message is that the U.S. must come to them offering concessions, especially sanctions relief. And in the meantime, North Korea is just going to keep on improving its arsenal.
INSKEEP: Of course, that Hanoi summit a couple of years ago involved a different president. Now we have a new president who wants to take his own approach to North Korea or figure out his own approach to North Korea. How does North Korea's attitude complicate that?
KUHN: Well, one concern here in Seoul, which is hoping for engagement with Pyongyang, is that, you know, it will push the U.S. towards a hard line policy, which means the U.S. will ask North Korea to disarm unilaterally, which they have said they will not do. They have said that they're open to negotiation if the U.S. sticks to an agreement made in Singapore between then President Trump and Kim Jong Un, which is for step-by-step, incremental movements that both sides reciprocate.
INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Thanks so much.
KUHN: Thank you, Steve.
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