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North Korea tests a new ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S.


North Korea is once again showing the world its nuclear capabilities. Earlier this week, the authoritarian government tested its newest and biggest intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, for the first time in five years. Analysts think the vessel is capable of reaching the continental U.S. with nuclear warheads, which has some observers worried that the test is the prelude to a period of heightened military tension in Northeast Asia.

We're joined now by NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who is in Seoul. Good morning, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Nice to join you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: What have we learned about the missile and this test since it happened?

KUHN: Well, on Friday, North Korea confirmed that what they test-launched was this massive missile called the Hwasong-17, and they fired it from a gigantic launcher with 11 axles. And while Pyongyang claims that this launch was a success, they didn't say they're ready to deploy it. Experts believe that the most complex technologies have yet to be mastered, and so they expect North Korea to continue testing. The state media reports showed Kim Jong Un wearing shades and a black leather bomber jacket. And so this was a sort of a theatrical debut for this missile. And Kim used it to send a message. He was quoted by state media as saying that Pyongyang is settling in for a prolonged confrontation with the U.S., and it is going to make anyone who infringes on North Korea's security pay for it.

ELLIOTT: That's the political message that North Korea is trying to send. What might happen next?

KUHN: Well, experts are concerned here that we need to buckle up as we head into a rough patch. For the past five years, North Korea has stuck to a moratorium on testing these kind of weapons. And the U.S. and South Korea have therefore downscaled or postponed their military exercises to leave room for diplomacy. But now we have a new president coming in here in South Korea who's less interested in diplomacy and more interested in military deterrence. So probably the U.S. and South Korea are going to ramp up their tests, and we've seen what that can do. North Korea says, you see; you're planning to attack us. We need to beef up our nuclear arsenal. They get into this escalation and maybe even nuclear brinkmanship of the sort we saw in 2017, when then President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea traded threats and insults, calling each other dotard and rocket man.

ELLIOTT: This White House is condemning the ICBM test but contends that the door to diplomacy remains open. What do you think the chances are of a return to talks?

KUHN: Well, after the last bit of summit diplomacy in 2019, North Korea decided, we don't have enough leverage. We need to beef up our nuclear arsenal and then try again to get some security guarantees and sanctions relief from the U.S. So experts believe that Pyongyang is going to try to perfect their arsenal first before they even consider returning to the negotiating table. And Thursday's missile test is a reminder of how far they've come in the past years since diplomacy stopped. Here is Melissa Hanham, an affiliate at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, talking about the new ICBM.

MELISSA HANHAM: This type of technology is definitely the kind of technology we would have wanted to freeze or eliminate the possibility of beforehand.

KUHN: But that's very difficult to do now because North Korea has repeatedly rejected U.S. offers of talks without any preconditions. Another problem is that things have changed a lot in five years with Russia and China, which previously joined other U.N. Security Council members in passing resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang for its nuclear and missile tests. But ties with Moscow and Beijing are so sour now it's really hard to say whether the U.N. can reach an agreement and act together on this issue.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Anthony Kuhn, thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you. 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.