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What The Nuclear Weapons Test Reveals About North Korea's Goals

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Next, we turn to Evans Revere. He's a former senior State Department official. Welcome to the program.

EVANS REVERE: Thank you. It's great to be here.

CORNISH: First, let me ask you about the timing of this by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Why now?

REVERE: All of us are asking that same question. Many of us who follow this nuclear issue - North Korea nuclear issue closely have been expecting a nuclear weapons test and/or a medium- or long-range ballistic missile test for quite some time. But in terms of the specific timing of this, it came as a bit of a surprise, especially in light of the rather low-key, by North Korean standards, speech that Kim Jong-un gave on New Year's Day. And there was, quite frankly, no mention of nuclear weapons in that speech, and none of the table-pounding rhetoric that one hears out of North Korea.

CORNISH: In the past, there's been a kind of saber-rattling that might yield concessions or aid. Is that - any chance something like that happening here?

REVERE: Hope springs eternal, but I think there is good reason to be skeptical about this. The fact that North Koreans have been under considerable pressure by the Chinese, in particular, in recent months not to conducted a nuclear weapons test but went ahead and did so anyway in defiance of their only treaty ally and their, of course, their lifeline, China, suggests that there is a level of determination about North Korean intentions here that suggests to me, at least, that it's highly unlikely that this is a prelude to any sort of concession or diplomacy by the North Koreans.

CORNISH: In terms of long-term intentions or the ultimate goal here, I mean, how does this help North Korea?

REVERE: The North Koreans sometime ago decided that their continued existence as a state and the continued existence of their system depends on their acquisition of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them and that the only way to get the attention of the United States and to prevent the United States from doing to the North Koreans what the North Koreans are convinced we intend to do to them is to have a nuclear weapons capability.

CORNISH: There's this scheduled emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. Talk about what their options are.

REVERE: North Korea is one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, which is not to say that there isn't more that can and probably should be done. But one of the big problems that we have here in terms of sanctions enforcement on North Korea is that we can have as many sanctions as we want, but if China is prepared to look the other way or is not prepared to enforce all of these sanctions or is not prepared to take steps with the rest of the international community to put the sort of pressure that probably needs to be put on North Korea, then it doesn't really matter what the U.N. Security Council does. There are limits to the amount of pressure that we'll be able to bring to bear on North Korea.

CORNISH: Given what you've told us about the relationship between North Korea and China, do you think that will be the case?

REVERE: It is to be hoped that that will be the case. This is a pretty egregious slap in the face against China. This detonation, this nuclear test, happened fairly close to the Chinese-North Korean border. The Chinese are certainly not happy about that. It happened despite all of the Chinese efforts to stop North Korea from conducting such tests. If there was ever a moment for the Chinese to reconsider their past support for and enabling of North Korea, this is that moment.

And let us hope that they do so because now more than ever, we need Chinese support on this. Chinese support together with the efforts of the United States and the rest of the international community, if we intensify the pressure on North Korea, if we collaborate in doing things like going after banking transactions and financial transactions and essentially putting a stranglehold on the financial and economic lifeline of North Korea, that might get their attention.

CORNISH: That's Evans Revere. He's a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a former State Department official. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

REVERE: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.