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North Korea Launches Missile A Day After Agreeing To Nuclear Talks


North Korea fired what is believed to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile today. Now, if that's what it was, it would be a big step forward in North Korea's missile program. In a few days, the U.S. and North Korean officials are supposed to resume nuclear talks that stalled back in February. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is on the line from Seoul. Hi, Anthony.


KING: So what do we know about this kind of missile and how significant it is?

KUHN: Well, as you may remember, North Korea has been testing quite a lot of missiles and rockets in recent months. But they've all been short-range. What was tested today was a medium-range missile that can fly nearly a thousand miles. Today, this missile went about 500 miles up and then about 280 miles over. So it was aimed in a very high arc and then came down.

And experts and governments generally believe that, you know, for them to perfect and develop and deploy nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles would be, you know, as you said, a major advance in its military capabilities and a serious new threat. But they're considered to be a ways off from perfecting it. They could launch this from offshore, from underwater, and that would make it harder to detect and to target. All of North Korea's land-based missiles could be destroyed, but they'd still have that additional deterrent in the water.

KING: Wow.

KUHN: And it's not clear whether today's missile was launched from a submarine - it hasn't done that yet - or from a submerged barge, which it has done before.

KING: OK. This missile came down fairly close to Japan. What is Japan saying?

KUHN: Well, Japan is, of course, protesting it. When North Korea was testing a lot of missiles back in 2017, Japanese would wake up and hear about these missiles landing not far from them, and it was very nerve-wracking. And this is the first time something like this has happened in a while. Tokyo says this missile may have actually split into two parts before hitting the water.

South Korea, of course, wants to know more about that, and they've requested intelligence from Japan. But they've done that under an intelligence-sharing agreement that Seoul is about to quit next month. So this is just an example of how internal divisions between U.S. allies can undermine security cooperation at a really crucial time when they're facing serious threats.

KING: Let me ask you another question on timing because the U.S. and North Korea are supposed to restart nuclear talks really soon, right?

KUHN: That's right. Preliminary talks are supposed to begin Friday between the U.S. and North Korea, and then the main talks are on Saturday. These talks have been stalled since President Trump walked out on what he considered a bad deal offered by Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in February. And if the U.S. sees this as a serious enough provocation, it's possible it could delay the talks.

KING: What - if those talks do go forward, what are the stakes there?

KUHN: Well, this is really a crucial test of whether both sides are willing to make concessions and strike a small deal, an incremental deal, in which North Korea freezes and dismantles some parts of its nuclear program in exchange from some sort of sanctions relief and/or security guarantees. North Korea has basically said this year is it. Either the U.S. comes up with concessions by year's end, or it will give up on negotiating. And it could go back to testing nuclear weapons. Now President Trump is facing this impeachment inquiry. And while North Korea hasn't talked about it, it could reinforce their conviction that this is the last chance for some sort of a deal.

KING: Oh, that's really interesting. NPR's Anthony Kuhn on the line from Seoul. Thanks, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "THOUSAND-HAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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