President Biden heads to South Korea this week after a series of North Korean missile tests. Seoul and Washington are alarmed by Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal and its apparent willingness to use it.
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As President Biden heads to South Korea and Japan this week, officials in Seoul say North Korea could conduct a long-range missile test soon. Pyongyang has already conducted 16 tests so far this year. But as NPR’s Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, it’s not just North Korea’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons that’s giving foreign governments pause. It is the apparent willingness of the North to use them.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: North Korea’s last truck-mounted missiles rolled through Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square last month in a military parade. Leader Kim Jong-un, dressed in a white uniform, addressed the event.
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SUPREME LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Speaking in Korean).
KUHN: The basic mission of our nuclear forces is to deter war, he said. But our nuclear weapons can never be limited to the sole mission of deterring war. If any force tries to violate the fundamental interests of our state, he added, our nuclear forces will have to decisively fulfill their unexpected second mission. Park Won-gon, a North Korea expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, says that based on previous statements from North Korea, those interests could include all sorts of things.
PARK WON-GON: The vital national interest for North Korea includes raising the question about these North Korean human rights violations and even sanctioning North Korea.
KUHN: Kim Jong-un’s comments suggest a departure from his previous promises not to use his nuclear weapons first. The United States does not rule out the first use either. North Korea is building both short-range nuclear weapons to target US and South Korean forces in Asia and long-range weapons to threaten the mainland United States. Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong, who is also a powerful official, added last month that Pyongyang might use these nuclear weapons not as a last resort, but at the start of a conflict to demoralize the enemy or simply to conserve military strength. from North. Jeon Kyong-joo, a researcher at the Korea Defense Analysis Institute, a government think tank in Seoul, says Kim Yo-jong’s words shed new light on Pyongyang’s strategy.
JEON KYONG-JOO: (Through an interpreter) The credibility of the threat due to its capabilities has increased along with the credibility of its intentions.
KUHN: Jeon believes that the likelihood of Kim actually using his nuclear weapons is very low, unless he thinks he is facing conflict with US and South Korean forces, who have an advantage in conventional weapons. She says Pyongyang’s ultimate goal remains to unify the peninsula under her own rule.
JEON: (Through an interpreter) It’s still a very important goal and one that needs to be achieved in the very long term. But they must think that recognition as a nuclear state is a necessary first step towards that goal.
KUHN: Although South Korea does not have nuclear weapons, it does have many missiles, some of which can be aimed directly at Kim Jong-un.
JEFFREY LEWIS: South Korea has made it very clear that the intent of this force is to behead North Korean leaders in a crisis, which is incredibly progressive.
KUHN: Jeffrey Lewis is a gun control expert at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, California.
LEWIS: So you have a situation where the warring parties, South Korea and North Korea, think they’re going to go first, and one of them is wrong about that. That is very destabilizing.
KUHN: North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests will be high on the agenda of President Biden’s summit meeting with President Yoon Suk-yeol. Seoul says it even has a contingency plan ready in case the North conducts any tests during the summit. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
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