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North Korean Missile Was A 'Cleverly Calculated Test'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What signal might North Korea have been sending this weekend when it launched a number of long-range cruise missiles, the first missile test in six months? North Korea's state news agency KCNA says they hit targets more than 900 miles away and also suggested the missiles could be fitted with nuclear warheads, although it's not clear Pyongyang has the ability to do that yet. For some analysis, let's bring in Jean Lee, North Korea expert at the Wilson Center. Hi there.

JEAN LEE: Hi.

KELLY: So what is your first reaction to word of this weekend's missile tests?

LEE: Not surprised. It was such a cleverly calculated test by the North Koreans. Every test of missile technology gets North Korea closer to expanding its arsenal. But this one, a cruise missile test, isn't technically banned by the U.N. Security Council. It was very strategically timed. It was a kind of reminder to not only the world but primarily the United States, the Biden administration as well as South Korea, China and Japan because their envoys and their foreign ministers are meeting in the region. So I think it was a reminder that, hey; you may be distracted with Afghanistan, with COVID-19, with your domestic issues. But don't forget we're still building weapons, and they are getting more and more threatening. So when you get together to talk, give this some thought.

KELLY: You're reminding me of an interview I did this summer with the director of the CIA, Bill Burns. I asked him about North Korea and said, they've been out of the headlines, but is there any doubt that they are continuing to build up both the missile program and their nuclear arsenal? He said zero, no doubt at all. It sounds like you agree.

LEE: That's absolutely right. It may seem to us here in the United States that they've been quiet, but I have no doubt that they have continuously been working on that nuclear program. And if and when they do get to nuclear negotiations again - and I do believe Kim Jong Un does want to - that they will be in a stronger position. And so each of these tests marks a step toward expanding that arsenal and strengthening their position.

KELLY: Now, as you know, understanding what's happening in North Korea from here in the U.S. is always a challenge, I gather even more so now because during the pandemic, they have sealed their borders. So we know even less than usual about the world's most secretive regime.

LEE: I can't think of a time when we've known less about what's happening inside North Korea because they've sealed the borders since January 2020. And that means not only are people not getting in and out, people who can tell us what's actually happening on the ground. But goods and aid and food are not getting in and out. And so we rely more than ever on the state media from North Korea, which means they control and shape the narrative.

So I do think that the regime has other reasons for why they want to seal the border. It's supposed to protect the country against the arrival of the pandemic, but I also think that they're using the pandemic for a certain type of propaganda. They're very good at painting a picture of these external forces out to get them, and the pandemic is another external force. And so they've been using it to try to bring the people together, try to rationalize the economic hardship and for Kim Jong Un to step forward and say, I'm protecting you. This is another way, in addition to nuclear weapons, that I'm protecting you.

KELLY: Jean Lee, thank you.

LEE: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: She's a senior fellow at the Wilson Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.