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North Korea advances its nuclear capabilities

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

North Korea says it tested a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

That means new rockets that can be launched far more quickly than the ones in its current arsenal. Experts are saying it represents another important step toward Pyongyang completing its nuclear arsenal.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul to explain the significance of this move.

Hello, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So what did North Korea say about this new weapon and the test launch?

KUHN: North Korea said that this is a new intercontinental ballistic missile called the Hwasong-18, which it says improves its ability to launch a quick nuclear counterattack. And they said they want to make their enemies suffer from fear and anxiety. Leader Kim Jong Un was there to watch this test launch along with his wife, his sister and his young daughter. And any time there's a really important event like this, it's a family affair. And that's how they highlighted it.

MARTIN: Tell us more about why this solid-fuel rocket is such an improvement for North Korea's capabilities.

KUHN: Well, when you have a liquid-fueled missile, it has to be fueled up while the missile is sitting on a launch pad. And that makes it a target. With a solid-fuel missile, they have it prefueled, ready to go. They have it hidden in a tunnel. Often, they just rolled it out on a truck, point it up, and they launch it in a matter of minutes. So what this means in practical terms was spelled out for us by Jeffrey Lewis, who's an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif. Let's hear him.

JEFFREY LEWIS: It's just going to be much, much harder for the United States to ultimately find and destroy these missiles in a conflict.

KUHN: And as we've said previously, Kim Jong Un has already publicly listed the weapons he wants to develop in the next few years. And he's gone down the list and done it - hypersonic missiles, submarine-launched missiles, cruise missiles, train-launched missiles - all just to make it easier for North Korea to hit its enemies and harder for its enemies to hit it.

MARTIN: Do we know what the U.S. and South Korea plan to do in response?

KUHN: Well, just very recently, the U.S. and South Korea announced that they staged joint Air Force drills involving at least one U.S. B-52 strategic bomber. I think it's safe to say that they're going to continue to focus on deterring North Korea. They've been holding the most in the biggest military drills in five years this year. The U.S. is under pressure to demonstrate its commitment to defending its ally, South Korea. And the South is trying to reassure its public that they still have the military technology edge over North Korea and that the U.S. is giving them a greater say in how they deter North Korea. The U.S., meanwhile, continues to insist that the door to negotiations with North Korea remains open, but diplomacy has now been stalled for four years with no signs of any progress.

MARTIN: Is North Korea going to want to put a nuclear warhead on this new missile?

KUHN: Well, some analysts believe that the Hwasong-18 still needs to be tested, but essentially, they have a new generation of missiles out now, and they're going to focus on new warheads to put on them. And that's why people have been expecting a seventh underground nuclear test for about a year or so. It hasn't happened, possibly because he would trigger a stronger response from the international community. But they need to test more nuclear bombs to finish the arsenal. So I think we can expect them to do that at a time of their choosing.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul.

Anthony, thank you so much.

KUHN: Thanks, Michel. 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.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.