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North Korea Conducts Another Missile Test


North Korea was caught testing a missile again. It hasn't even been a year since President Trump and Kim Jong Un met for the first time. Earlier this year, the two leaders met again, but talks abruptly fell apart. Those meetings were all meant to lay the foundation for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. But what does the new missile test mean for this fragile process? To help us understand, we're joined by Jean Lee. She's a Korea policy expert with the Wilson Center here in Washington. Thanks for being with us.

JEAN LEE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What do you make of this latest weapon test? I mean, just more bluster from the north, or does it signify something substantive?

LEE: Yeah, let's break this down. This is a message that has several different audiences. First and foremost, remember that it was President Trump who walked away from that negotiation Hanoi, by all accounts. And so what Kim Jong Un is doing is he's getting impatient. He's frustrated. He wants to accelerate the pace of getting back to that negotiation. And so this is a reminder.

And he did it so strategically because if he had tested a long-range ballistic missile, which he promised President Trump he wouldn't do, that would've forced President Trump to come out with some strong statement. But what he did was test much smaller weapons that don't - they do potentially violate U.N. Security Council resolutions. They do violate promises with the South Koreans not to raise tensions, but they don't overtly challenge Trump. So it's kind of a reminder. It's also a reminder - look; we are still developing and refining our weapons. So if you don't get this back on track and it - and in terms that we like, we can quickly go back to provocation.

And it's also a message to his own people. He is most likely having to answer to these military hardliners at home who don't like the negotiation process with the United States. So this is meant as a message to the North Korean people to show them that they're still tough, that he can still defend them.

MARTIN: So President Trump is trying to downplay it. Is that the right course of action? I mean, how should the United States react to this?

LEE: This is interesting because I am happy that we're not going back to the war of words - the fire and fury that we saw in 2017.

MARTIN: Little rocket man, et cetera. Yeah.

LEE: But I'm a little concerned - oh, I should say I'm very concerned that he and Secretary Pompeo are saying, well, it's not long-range ballistic missile launches that are aimed at the mainland United States. That pretty much gives the North Koreans leeway to test smaller weapons that have the facility to target South Korea, Japan and, frankly, our U.S. troops in the region.

MARTIN: So can you just remind us what has happened since those talks fell apart in Vietnam? I mean, that was earlier this year. You say President Trump was the one who walked away. Does that mean nothing has been happening? I mean, even at the staff level, are - have talks come to a halt?

LEE: Secretary Pompeo did say yesterday that there's been some communication, but nothing that we've seen, nothing that's been out in the public. And it's understandable after a rupture like that that there would be some - a bit of a retreat and both sides kind - trying to reshuffle or come up with another strategy. So we haven't seen any discussion out in the public. I do hope that those channels of communication are still open. They're always available.

MARTIN: Right.

LEE: And what happens next is really going to depend on how partners and North Korea's allies in the region react to this latest test or recent tests.

MARTIN: Right. So you mentioned South Korea - also, Japan - I mean, they've got to be feeling threatened in this moment, or do they now brush these things off?

LEE: I think they're going to feel very threatened. These are also reminders to them. What North Korea wants to do is to divide these allies. And it's a reminder to South Korea - hey, listen. If you continue to stick by maximum pressure, we can threaten you. So it certainly puts President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in a very sticky position. And it's going to make Japan nervous, as well. Remember, they're really in the path of these weapons that were designed to test their facility to strike those two areas - South Korea and Japan.

MARTIN: Jean Lee of the Wilson Center. Thanks. We appreciate it.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.