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North Korea is ramping up missile tests as Kim Jung Un weighs war with South Korea

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Is North Korea gearing up for war? Well, here are a few data points to consider. This week North Korea test fired cruise missiles from its western coast. This is actually the third time in a week. Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is warning of possible war with South Korea, announcing his army is planning for a, quote, "great revolutionary event." So is this rhetoric, or has Kim made a strategic decision to go to war? Joining me now is Germany's former ambassador to North Korea, Thomas Schafer. Ambassador, welcome.

THOMAS SCHAFER: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: And Nick Kristof of The New York Times, who has covered and reported from North Korea since the 1980s and who recently wrote about this in a column headlined "As If We Didn't Have Enough To Frighten Us." Hey there.

NICK KRISTOF: Hi - good to be with you.

KELLY: So, Nick Kristof, you first. You have covered plenty of false alarms from Pyongyang over the years. Why are you warning we need to take this current moment very seriously?

KRISTOF: So something strange is going on in North Korea and has been for a few years. They've been more distant. They've held the West off. They've ratcheted up the rhetoric. The recent warning about a great revolutionary event was concerning. And what really got my attention was that there were a couple of North Korea real old hands. One is Robert Carlin, who spent 50 years examining North Korea for the CIA, for the State Department and others, and also Siegfried Hecker, who's a nuclear expert who visited North Korea seven times. And they both warned that they believe North Korea has actually made a decision to go ahead and launch an attack. Now, I guess my starting point is I have no idea what North Korea will do. And the one thing I've learned from covering it is that we need to have a lot of humility in examining it. But when North Korea is acting strangely, when it's ratcheting up the rhetoric and when you have some real experts warning that it may have made a decision, I think we need to take that indeed very seriously.

KELLY: Ambassador Schafer, let me bring you in because you are of the view that Kim Jong Un is bluffing. Why?

SCHAFER: Well, first, I would like to say that I believe that the danger of a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula has indeed been growing for some time, and it keeps growing.

KELLY: Has been growing. Yeah.

SCHAFER: The international conditions - Ukraine, tensions because of Taiwan, the Mideast - are favorable to North Korea, and Pyongyang has been trying to increase tensions for some time. But this is due to the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. Pyongyang hopes for a win, I believe, by Trump or another isolationist Republican to get another chance to come closer to their main strategic goal, which is a weakening of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and withdrawal of the U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. So to come back to your question, I do not believe that Pyongyang wants war, neither now nor later. But I do believe that the possibility that a war might break out would increase considerably in the case of a retreat from the U.S. from the Korean Peninsula.

KELLY: Let's just go to the worst-case scenario. If a nuclear armed North Korea has decided on war, the first question - what is the risk to the U.S.? What could that look like? Nick Kristof.

KRISTOF: So I don't think that North Korea would start with nuclear weapons because I think it would see them as a shield to limit a response. But what has always scared people is the idea that Seoul is this huge metropolis that is so close to the DMZ that North Korea can reach it with artillery, including artillery with biological or chemical weapons, for example. And if it hit Okinawa, if it hit Guam, if it - you know, there would be a response. And then the risk is that North Korea then escalates to nuclear weapons. Could North Korea reach the continental U.S. with a nuclear warhead? We don't know. It doesn't - it hasn't proved that it has the capacity to have a warhead reenter the atmosphere. But, boy, you know, even if it were just conventional weapons, even if nuclear weapons were never used, it would be just devastating throughout Asia.

KELLY: Ambassador Schafer, do you agree?

SCHAFER: What I would like to say is we have to think more about the objectives, North Korean objectives. What do they really want? What do they consider its gravest danger? And it's not just a military invasion. I believe what they consider their greatest danger is the influx of destabilizing ideas and the German-style reunification by absorption, as Pyongyang calls it. South Korea is considered by the North Korean regime as an existential threat, which it can only hope to somehow neutralize once the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. has been weakened. So the overriding intention to push the U.S. off the Korean Peninsula, the scope of Pyongyang's nuclear objectives and the fear of the so-called spiritual pollution does, of course, not bode well for efforts to convince North Korea to change course.

KELLY: Well, this prompts a question as I start to bring us toward a close here, which is, what can anyone do to convince North Korea this is a bad idea? And, Ambassador Schafer, I guess I would love to ask you specifically about China, which, of course, shares a border with North Korea.

SCHAFER: Well, I think what the international community has been doing in the last decades - that is, trying to engage with North Korea, offering political and economic incentives, giving security guarantees and building confidence - is the right course. One should remember that North Korea does not only consist of one person who decides all. Actually, it's 25 million. And, as I believe, the leadership is broader than many people think, and not all have the same thinking. Some of them believe that following the Chinese way, doing reforms internally, giving more personal freedom to their people and coming to an understanding with the international community is the right way to follow. So I believe the international community should actually continue that approach in the hope to convince those people in the leadership in North Korea that might be willing to respond to such an approach.

KELLY: So I hear you're sounding optimistic that North Korea can be influenced. Nick Kristof, do you share that optimism? And I'll ask you specifically about the U.S. What can or should the U.S. do?

KRISTOF: So, frankly, I don't think that there's a great deal we can do. I agree with Ambassador Schafer that we should try engagement. I doubt it will get terribly far. You know, one thing we can do is that the more we help Ukraine make Russia pay a price and the more Russia is degraded militarily and Putin is seen as a loser, I think the more that makes North Korea wonder about its decision to ally itself so closely with Putin and see its future as a partner of Putin. So, you know, I think that's one thing we can do that maybe, at the margin, can help a little bit.

KELLY: Nick Kristof of The New York Times and Thomas Schafer, Germany's former ambassador to North Korea. Thanks to you both.

KRISTOF: Thank you.

SCHAFER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "EL BUENO Y EL MALO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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