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North Korea confirms it simulated use of nukes to destroy enemies

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia is not the only country making threats of nuclear strikes.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

North Korea is telling a story about its recent missile tests. It has conducted seven rounds of tests in the past couple of weeks. And the government now says those launches all simulated attacks on South Korea using tactical nuclear weapons. North Korea also restated its position that it's not interested in dialogue with the United States or South Korea.

FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Seoul and joins us now. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us more about what North Korea had to say about its recent tests.

KUHN: North Korea state media reported Monday that all seven of these recent tests involve nuclear-capable, short-range, intermediate-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. And the test simulated wartime attacks on South Korean ports, airports and command facilities. And leader Kim Jong Un personally oversaw some of the launches. What state media reported about the intentions were that the drills were supposed to show the effectiveness and readiness of the North's tactical nuclear forces and also send a warning to the U.S. and South Korea at a time when the U.S. has been ramping up its own military exercises with South Korea and Japan.

FADEL: And when did North Korea get tactical nuclear weapons? And what does it change?

KUHN: Experts believe that North Korea probably decided to get tactical nukes in 2019 after a failed summit in Hanoi between then-President Trump and Kim Jong un, and that Kim publicly announced his intention to get these weapons in January of 2021. Now, Lee Ho-ryung, who's a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, argues that these weapons are not new. What North Korea is trying to do is deploy them in new ways so that they can avoid being detected or intercepted by the U.S. and South Korea. Here's what she said.

LEE HO-RYUNG: (Non-English language spoken).

KUHN: She says, I think the variety of launches betray North Korean military units' fear of Kim Jong Un, who's demanding that the military come up with solutions and tactics. She adds that these tests are a result of that fear and, in a way, betray their vulnerabilities. So basically, she's skeptical that the North's tactical nuclear forces are as effective as Pyongyang claims.

FADEL: But do North Korea's tactical nukes make nuclear war more likely?

KUHN: Arguably, yes. North Korea recently updated its nuclear doctrine and wrote that doctrine into law. And Lee argues that these tests were meant to show that the military can enforce that law. The law says that North Korea can use its nukes preemptively. That is, it can launch them not because it's been attacked, but simply because it's losing in a conventional war. And previously, Kim Jong Un has been the only one with the authority to launch nukes. But now Kim apparently intends to delegate authority to use tactical nukes to frontline military commanders so that they can win on the battlefield. And even if Kim is killed in a decapitation strike, North Korea can still retaliate.

FADEL: At this point, is North Korea's nuclear arsenal complete?

KUHN: No. Experts have been saying for some time that North Korea's plan was first to develop tactical nukes, then progressed to upgrading intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs and nuclear tests. In other words, they want to show first that they can hit U.S. military bases in South Korea, Japan and Guam, and then show that they can hit the U.S. mainland. Seoul and Washington have been watching for signs of these tests. And a logical time to do them would probably be after China's Communist Party Congress in late October.

FADEL: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul. Thank you.

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

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.