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North Korea launches its eighth missile test of the year


North Korea tested what appears to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile. That is the North's eighth missile launch of the year, for those counting. It is the fifth since September. All this comes as the U.S. and its allies in Asia are meeting to discuss how to get North Korea back to the negotiating table, where they haven't been since a summit in 2019. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul. Hey there, Anthony.


INSKEEP: What exactly did the North Koreans test?

KUHN: Well, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff believe this was at least one submarine-launched ballistic missile fired off from the port of Sinpo, which is a sub base for North Korean and a weapons production hub. And the missile flew about 280 miles to the east, towards Japan, and that would make it a short-range ballistic missile, which - by the way - is not allowed under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The main thing we do not know about this launch - about whether it was done from an actual submarine or from a barge or some sort of platform. Now, North Korea has already launched from these barges, but if it launched from a sub now, that would really be a breakthrough because North Korea is trying to put together a submarine fleet, which when under the water, would be hard to detect. It could survive a strike on their land-based arsenal, and it could launch nuclear missiles at the U.S. from, for example, the Pacific Ocean. But they're a long way from doing that. And a step such as firing from a sub would be a big breakthrough.

INSKEEP: What is the point of this test? And I ask that in a couple of different ways. You alluded to the military purpose of the weapon, but there's also, of course, the political or diplomatic message that is sent when they test.

KUHN: Yeah, well, look at it this way. Last month alone, they tested four different kinds of missiles - a hypersonic missile, long-range cruise missiles, anti-aircraft missile and a missile launched from a train. And that gives them more ways to threaten the U.S. and its allies, more ways to defeat U.S. and South Korean missile defenses. They're also trying to beat or at least keep up with South Korea in an arms race. Last month, in a telling development, both Koreas launched missiles within hours of each other. And if they do go into future negotiations with the U.S., they want to create more pressure and leverage.

What I find interesting is the methodical way they're doing this. Leader Kim Jong Un aired a bucket list of weapons earlier this year that he wants to get, and he has gotten them, one after the other. But there are some that have not yet been tested, which we may be seeing before long, such as missiles with multiple warheads and solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles, which of course, for the U.S., is worrisome.

INSKEEP: And this is a good reminder because it's tempting sometimes to think of the North Korean military as kind of large and creaky and old and outdated, but when you talk about hypersonic missiles and missiles with multiple warheads, we're talking about quite sophisticated and quite dangerous weapons that can strike very, very quickly. What does this mean for the prospect of diplomacy with North Korea?

KUHN: Well, there's a lot of it going on at the moment. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines was in Seoul today talking with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts. The U.S. said that this test did not actually threaten the U.S. or its allies, but they called on North Korea to refrain from more tests. The U.S. continues to say they will talk with North Korea at any time without preconditions. They offer enticements such as humanitarian aid. But North Korea - everything that's being discussed, North Korea has already rejected. So the stalemate seems set to continue while South Korea - while North Korea keeps on building up its leverage and its pressure.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul. Anthony, it's always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you so much.

KUHN: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.