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North Korea fires artillery shells, drops reunification goal with the South

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

North Korea reversed its long-standing policy of peaceful unification with South Korea last week. Leader Kim Jong Un announced his country is abandoning that goal and declared South Korea its principal enemy. A day before that speech, North Korea tested a ballistic missile. And a few days afterwards, it claimed to have tested an underwater drone that could carry a nuclear weapon. Is this just posturing, or signs that the regime is about to make a dramatic move?

Edward Howell is a lecturer at the University of Oxford and specialist on North Korea, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

EDWARD HOWELL: Thank you very much. It's very good to be here.

RASCOE: So what do you make of Kim Jong Un turning away from the goal of unification? Why is he doing that, and why now?

HOWELL: So this is clearly a departure from North Korea's historic goal of reunifying the Korean Peninsula under the control of the North. What we're seeing, however, is North Korea really take advantage of the cleavages in international relations, the inability of the United Nations Security Council to stop North Korea from becoming, ultimately, a nuclear-armed state. That, in my view, is Kim Jong Un's ultimate goal at the moment. And by presenting South Korea as this foreign power, he justifies escalating any provocations towards them.

RASCOE: And are these recent military tests - are they more of the same? Or what should we read into them?

HOWELL: What we're seeing is that North Korea is escalating provocations both in rhetoric and in actions, as we've seen over the past few weeks, particularly given how this year is an election year. It's an election year in South Korea with legislative elections but also with the U.S. presidential elections in November. And this is in line with North Korea's past behavior.

But what we are seeing is an increased confidence on the part of North Korea that it does not want to negotiate with South Korea or the United States. And it's increasingly confident in its status as a self-declared nuclear armed state.

RASCOE: Is that because - I mean, obviously, there are a lot of sanctions on North Korea. In the past, they had wanted to try to work out a deal to get some relief and possibly give up at least some of their weapons. Is that no longer on the table for them?

HOWELL: North Korea, I think, under Kim Jong Un at this stage is really unwilling to negotiate. It's not even pretending to want to engage in talks with South Korea and with the United States. And Kim Jong Un has also made statements to his people making clear that the North Korean people should learn to live with sanctions. So what we're seeing here is quite a shift from previous times, previous points in times, in North Korean history where Pyongyang has made much greater attempt to try and extract concessions from the United States. In fact, what we're seeing is North Korea forge greater ties with its Cold War patrons, particularly of Russia.

RASCOE: Yeah, I wanted to ask you that because Russia has become much more important recently, and it actually bought a large shipment of arms from North Korea in the fall. So what do Russia and North Korea gain from each other?

HOWELL: So at the most fundamental level, this is a cash-for-ammunition exchange. North Korea gets money at a time when its economy is declining and it needs money, and Russia gets ammunition and vital artillery supplies. But I think, you know, we must remember that Russia is not North Korea's largest trading partner. That is China.

RASCOE: Yeah.

HOWELL: At the same time, there is a growing sense amongst the North Korean leadership that there is a need to take advantage of the fissures in the broader international environment and the formation of an anti-Western coalition between North Korea, Russia and with other countries is also very much on Pyongyang's minds.

RASCOE: What do you think the U.S. and its allies in the region should do in response to this? Like, what should the response from the West be to these deepening ties between Russia and North Korea and to North Korea's kind of intransigence at this point?

HOWELL: I think, firstly, there's a real need for the United States to strengthen its alliances and reassure its allies, particularly South Korea and Japan, both bilaterally and trilaterally. And we saw this last year at the Camp David summit. I think there's also a growing need for the U.S. to make sure that South Korea and Japan themselves - that this bilateral alliance is strong because we know that, historically, it has been rather volatile. And I think ensuring that all of the United States' allies in Northeast Asia are on board is very important at this present time.

RASCOE: That's Edward Howell. He's a lecturer in politics at Oxford University. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

HOWELL: Thank you very much. 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.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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