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North Korea's missile strikes are escalating tensions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Officials in Tokyo say North Korea has triggered one more missile test. That's on top of three ballistic missile tests earlier today, including the firing of a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile. Pyongyang also fired 23 missiles yesterday, the most the North has ever launched in a day. The latest show of aggression prompted evacuation warnings in both South Korea and Japan. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Seoul. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Can you explain more about the weapons North Korea launched over the last couple days and their significance?

KUHN: Yes. Today's tests included that suspected ICBM. And Japan thought that the ICBM was going to fly over its main island, so it issued warnings for people to seek cover in three prefectures. The missile did not fly over the island. Yesterday, it launched 23 missiles, which appear all to be short-range ballistic missiles. And last month, North Korea rehearsed using these missiles to hit U.S. and South Korean military targets with tactical nuclear weapons. I spoke to Kim Jeong-dae (ph) about this. He's a former South Korean defense official and a visiting professor at Yonsei University. Let's hear him speak.

KIM JEONG-DAE: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: So he says, "North Korea staged a very threatening provocation at a magnitude we've never seen before. They launched missiles from all around the country - east, west, south, north. This seems intended to negate our strategy of striking the source of the attack." So basically, he's saying that North Korea's two days of missile launches have sent a lot of signals about what North Korea can do militarily.

MARTIN: And what is North Korea saying about why it's doing this now?

KUHN: Well, it's portraying its missile launches as insurance against attacks, including nuclear attacks, by the U.S. and South Korea. It points to U.S. and South Korean large-scale joint Air Force exercises this week involving some 240 planes. Last week, it pointed to 12 days of joint large-scale military field exercises. It's also unhappy that the U.S., South Korea and Japan are stepping up trilateral cooperation against it and that the U.S. is deploying aircraft carriers and nuclear power subs to the region. And it especially doesn't like that South Korea openly talks about decapitation strikes against the North's leadership.

But even without all these pretexts, North Korea would be testing weapons anyway. They've begun a five-year plan to beef up their nuclear arsenal with the aim of making their military deterrent more credible and eventually extracting concessions from the U.S. And so it's likely to be conducting lots of nuclear and missile tests for years to come, whatever Seoul and Washington do.

MARTIN: Right. And as you alluded to, North Korea does this. I mean, they've conducted tests for many years. Does this feel different, like an actual military conflict between North Korea and one of its neighbors is closer?

KUHN: In some ways. I mean, the missiles flew over the de facto maritime border for the first time, and they appeared to be headed for populated areas. And South Korea considers that tantamount to a violation of its territory. Of course, the U.S. and South Korea are still expecting an even bigger provocation, which is North Korea's seventh test detonation of an atomic bomb. And they could get extra political impact if they stage that around the time of U.S. midterm elections.

MARTIN: Lastly, Anthony, the U.S. is now saying that North Korea is covertly transferring artillery shells to Russia to use in the war in Ukraine. What's going on?

KUHN: Well, North Korea has denied giving Russia this ammo, but the point is that the two Koreas are technically still at war, and they both have large stockpiles of weapons. Ukraine has said it wants South Korean weapons, and Russia could sure use North Korean ammo. So far, Seoul has limited itself to arming Ukraine's neighbor, Poland. But it's a really interesting illustration of how these two conflicts in Europe and Asia are actually connected through the history of the Cold War and its aftermath.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn reporting from Seoul. Thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn
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.