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North Korea Marks Founding Of Its Military With Artillery Exercise


Today marks the 85th anniversary of the founding of North Korea's military, and the North is marking that with a huge artillery exercise. This is certainly a reminder of just how vulnerable South Korea would be in a military confrontation. Its capital Seoul is less than 50 miles from the border, and North Korea doesn't need nuclear weapons to devastate that city. To talk about what's happening on the Korean Peninsula, we are joined by colleagues in two cities. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Beijing, and NPR's Domenico Montanaro is in Washington. Hey, guys.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Anthony, let me start with you. In the region, it looked like the North might be preparing for a nuclear test. Doesn't look like that happened, though.

KUHN: That's right. North Korea has been known to make shows of force on occasions like this, and there's been a lot of movement lately at nuclear test sites, suggesting they were going to do a nuclear test. Instead, there was a large live fire artillery drill on the East Coast. We don't know exactly how many artillery pieces were involved, but, as you said, it makes a clear point about the risk to South Korea.

Meanwhile, all sides have been making military preparations. The U.S. Michigan, a nuclear-powered submarine, arrived in the South Korean Port of Busan for resupplying, and it is carrying cruise missiles that could possibly be used in a military strike. And that's in addition to a U.S. carrier strike group which is headed to the area.

On the diplomatic front, today, we had nuclear envoys meeting in Tokyo from South Korea, Japan and the U.S. And they promised more unbearably harsh sanctions on North Korea if it goes ahead with nuclear missile tests.

GREENE: So the rhetoric has really been heating up, Anthony, and I want to talk to Domenico about what Washington wants or is looking for right now, but what is the North saying about its intentions right now?

KUHN: Officials did speak at this military anniversary in Pyongyang, and they said their nuclear weapons are at the ready in case of a U.S. invasion. And, as you know, their rhetoric is often very harsh and exaggerated, but it's been very strong in the past few days. They've also threatened to sink the U.S. aircraft carrier in one strike if it makes any provocations.

GREENE: Domenico, I don't know about you. What Anthony is saying sounds pretty frightening. But, I mean, is this run-in with North Korea different from when the North has had run-ins with previous administrations?

MONTANARO: Well, I think what you're talking about, what the - sounds frightening is because of so much ramped-up pressure and rhetoric that you're hearing from the Trump administration, as compared to the Obama administration. You've heard Vice President Pence talk about how the era of strategic patience is over. And let's take a listen to President Trump yesterday who hosted 15 ambassadors to the United Nations Security Council for lunch yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: North Korea is a big world problem, and it's a problem we have to finally solve. People have put blindfolds on for decades, and now it's time to solve the problem.

MONTANARO: So time to solve the problem, but it's not exactly clear how or what that move would be. Of course, a military strike is something that they keep on the table, but that would be very difficult to pull off. Right now diplomatically, the State Department are the ones who really have - the - who are taking the lead and being point on this. So Trump maybe trying to play both sides of this to show he can have that pressure, keep the military option on the table, but try to ramp up diplomacy as well.

GREENE: So you're saying some of this might not be in response to some sort of actual new threat. It is a decision by President Trump to to change the conversation here.

MONTANARO: But I think as Anthony mentioned, you know, we're going to sort of birthday to anniversary and wondering whether or not there will be a missile test and what the U.S. response will be. You know, so, of course, this is what I think has been prompting so much of this administration figuring out what it wants to do exactly and what its next steps will be.

GREENE: And we have this really unusual briefing coming at the White House, right?

MONTANARO: Right. All 100 senators are going to be at the brief - at the White House for this briefing tomorrow. The briefers are pretty heavy-hitters with Defense Secretary Mattis, Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford, the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Presumably, they'll talk about what intelligence is saying on North Korea's nuclear program, what military and cyber options are out there, what might be what the state of diplomacy is going to be and what the readiness options are for the United States if North Korea does pull off a test.

GREENE: And, Anthony Kuhn, any sense from your standpoint what is happening inside North Korea? Is this a country that is getting ready for possible war or what?

KUHN: Well, what we know about the situation in Pyongyang basically comes from the very few foreign reporters there, for example, the Associated Press has a bureau. And they reported over the weekend seeing that there were long lines at gas stations. Now, this is an interesting phenomenon because Beijing has threatened to cut off the gas and oil supply to North Korea.

So we don't know if that's why we're seeing the, you know, the long lines at the gas stations. But that hints at possible next moves, possible sanctions coming up if the North tests another nuclear device.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reporting from Beijing and Domenico Montanaro from NPR's Politics team in Washington. Gentlemen, thanks a lot.

MONTANARO: Thanks, David.

KUHN: You bet. 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.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.