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North Korea's Actions Make It A Pressing Foreign Policy Concern For Trump


President Donald Trump is busy trying to manage the fallout from his firing of FBI Director James Comey. But Trump's national security team is focused on a far different kind of crisis - the growing threat from North Korea. That country tested a ballistic missile over the weekend with a longer range than ever before.

The missile flew for half an hour at high altitude before landing in the Sea of Japan. To better understand what this latest test means for North Korea's nuclear capabilities, we are joined by Joel Wit. He's a former State Department official with an expertise in North Korea.

Joel, thanks for being back on the show.

JOEL WIT: Good morning.

MARTIN: What struck you about this latest test?

WIT: Well, I think what struck me is that North Korea's starting to test technologies that it can apply to building an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States. And so the high loft of the missile test had to do with testing what's called a re-entry vehicle, which protects a nuclear warhead as it re-enters the atmosphere after flying long distances. And so this is an important development in their program.

MARTIN: Are we able to discern what this means for a timeframe - how far they are away from being able to develop an ICBM?

WIT: Well, it's very difficult to figure out because we can't predict the rate of testing in the future. So most experts think that they could deploy an ICBM by about 2020 to 2021, but they certainly could start testing it much sooner.

MARTIN: So there's a new leader in South Korea. How much of this missile test had to do with sending a message to him?

WIT: Well, you know, the North Koreans like to play regional tough guy, so they're sending messages to everyone. They're sending a message to the United States that, you know, they're not going to be bullied. They're sending the same message to the Chinese. And it's important that the test took place on the eve of President Xi's global economic summit, so it's somewhat embarrassing to him. And they're sending the same message to the South Koreans - that they are going to be very difficult to deal with.

MARTIN: The U.N. Security Council is expected to meet tomorrow. They're going to discuss this latest missile test - what it means and what they can do about it. So what can they do about it?

WIT: Well, in practice, of course, they can impose some more sanctions, although it's unclear whether China would support those sanctions. But in reality, while it's important to put pressure on North Korea, sanctions are really a policy dead end. We've been imposing sanctions on North Korea for years now. And, in fact, while we've been doing that, their economy has gotten better, and they've moved forward with these programs. So we really need to seriously reconsider our approach and...

MARTIN: But what else is there?

WIT: ...Come up with a strategy.

MARTIN: (Laughter) What else is there besides sanctions?

WIT: Well, we're back to the same old things, which is we can impose sanctions, we can threaten military action. But at the end of the day, we're going to have to sit down and try to explore whether there are peaceful paths forward with the North Koreans through diplomacy.

MARTIN: Joel Wit is a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Hey, Joel, thanks for your time this morning.

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