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North Korea Launches 2 Ballistic Missiles. First Such Test In 6 Months

NOEL KING, HOST:

South Korea and Japan are saying today that North Korea test-fired ballistic missiles into the sea. This would be the first test of that sort since March. But what is really unusual is that South Korea, today, test-fired its own ballistic missile from a submarine. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following this one from Seoul. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: Let's talk about North Korea's launch first. What happened?

KUHN: South Korea's joint chiefs of staff says that North Korea fired two missiles from around the center of the Korean Peninsula, which traveled about 500 miles to the east and landed in the sea. That would make it basically a short-range ballistic missile, which could hit anything on the Korean Peninsula but not, say, for example, Tokyo. Seoul and Tokyo both called this a very serious matter. They both called meetings of their national security councils, and Japan's prime minister called it an outrageous violation of United Nations resolutions and a threat to regional peace.

KING: Was South Korea's launch a response to North Korea's?

KUHN: No. The timing...

KING: Oh.

KUHN: ...Of the two tests within hours of each other was quite amazing. But in fact, South Korea has been working on its submarine launch ballistic missiles for quite a while, and the two Koreas have been locked in this arms race. Both countries now have recently developed 3,000-ton submarines capable of launching these SLBMs. South Korea is the eighth country to have them. Those eight include North Korea, but the South is the only one among them that does not have nukes. Now, that doesn't mean that Seoul is about to go nuclear. But it is trying to deter North Korea with conventional weapons, and it's trying to build military capabilities independent of the U.S. And the U.S. so far is OK with that, and it has lifted guidelines that limit the range and payload of their missiles.

KING: OK. So today is Wednesday. Over the weekend, North Korea tested cruise missiles. Is the country escalating things?

KUHN: You could say it is in the sense that cruise missile tests over the weekend were not barred by U.N. resolutions, but ballistic missile tests are. So that was more serious. But no in the sense that North Korea actually did warn Washington and Seoul that if they went ahead with military exercises last month, they would be faced with a security crisis. So this could be making good on that pledge, you could say.

But also no in the sense that North Korea has set out very ambitious goals for beefing up its military and its capabilities. It's always got new weapons to test, and sometimes it tests them as a way of sending a message, and sometimes it's just because their weapons production schedule demands it. And also no in the sense that leader Kim Jong Un told North Korea, told his country, to prepare for both confrontation and engagement. And some believe that this could be a way to sort of ensure that North Korea stays on President Biden's busy agenda and maybe nudges him back to the negotiating table.

KING: Yeah, speaking of which, where do diplomatic efforts to end this whole thing stand?

KUHN: Right. Nuclear envoys met in Tokyo - envoys of the U.S., Japan and South Korea. And the U.S. reiterated that they're open to talks anytime and anywhere. Also, interesting that the North conducted this test as China's foreign minister was visiting Seoul. So although Washington might like Beijing to lean on Pyongyang to lay off the military provocations, this test seemed to suggest that Beijing is either unable or unwilling to help.

KING: OK. NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.