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North Korea has test fired a suspected long-range missile

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House says it strongly condemns North Korea for its latest test of a long-range ballistic missile. The ICBM test, also confirmed by Japan and South Korea, is North Korea's first since 2017. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul to talk about the implications of all this. Good morning, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: First off, what other details do we know about how this happened and what kind of missile it was?

KUHN: South Korea's military says this missile was fired from an airfield on the outskirts of Pyongyang. It landed in the sea, closer to Japan than in recent tests, and that triggered condemnation from Tokyo. South Korea says the missile traveled eastward for 670 miles, but it reached a maximum altitude of 3,850 miles, and that is believed to be farther and higher than the last ICBM, which they tested in 2017. So there is concern here that this could be North Korea's biggest, newest and most powerful ICBM to date. North Korea itself hasn't said what it fired, and we could hear about that from their state media on Friday. Now, some sort of ICBM test was expected, and the U.S. and South Korea have been watching for it.

MARTIN: South Korea's leader is saying that this crossed a red line. Those are his words. Explain what that means here.

KUHN: Well, in fact, North Korea is believed to have already conducted two ICBM tests this year, which they said were satellite tests, but U.S. and South Korea say were actually cover. And the reason they fired them at these steep angles and claimed they were satellites is because they didn't want to trigger a strong response, perhaps, such as more international sanctions or slamming the door shut on negotiations. This time, they may or may not have wanted to cross that line and break this moratorium which has been in place since 2017. But whatever the case, they did get a different response this time. South Korea says they've crossed a red line, and South Korea has fired several kinds of missiles, including surface-to-surface missiles in response, which they haven't done previously, and they've triggered very strong condemnations from foreign capitals, including Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

MARTIN: I mean, you said earlier that North Korea has been developing this bigger, stronger ICBM that would put the whole of the U.S. in its range, but can you speak more broadly about North Korea's larger missile development program?

KUHN: Yeah, well, they're basically one year into a five-year plan to upgrade their nuclear arsenal, and that includes developing ICBMs that are capable of reaching the U.S. with multiple warheads. Expert opinion is sort of divided on how far they are from that goal, but what is clear is that nuclear negotiations with the U.S. have been stalled since 2019, and it could be years before North Korea completes work on its weapons and lays its cards on the table and says, here is what we got, and, you know, what can we get for this in the way of security guarantees and sanctions relief?

MARTIN: Of course, all of this is happening - this particular test - during Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The world is focused there. Is the timing just a coincidence? Is there anything intentional about it?

KUHN: Experts say North Korea shows a pattern of trying to kill two birds with one stone - that is, testing weapons both to master a technology and to send a political message at the same time. The messages here could include that North Korea will not be ignored regardless of what else is going on in the world, or that North Korea will not go out like Ukraine, Libya or other countries that were denuclearized and then either attacked or overthrown.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn, reporting from Seoul. Thank you.

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