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As Tensions Rise, Experts Question Threat Level Posed By North Korea


President Trump hosted ambassadors from U.N. Security Council member countries today. He told them the council should be ready to impose new sanctions on North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs and that the status quo is unacceptable. Tomorrow's a North Korean holiday, the 85th anniversary of the army's founding. As is customary, it could be marked by a nuclear test or missile launch. NPR's David Welna looks at the North Korean threat.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Although North Korea has had nuclear weapons for more than a decade, it's closer than ever to its goal of building an intercontinental missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead to a major American city. Homeland Security secretary John Kelly warned of such a scenario yesterday on CNN.


JOHN KELLY: The minute North Korea gets a missile that could reach the United States and put a weapon on that missile, a nuclear weapon, the instant that happens, this country is at grave risk.

WELNA: And today on NBC, here's what U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said when asked if the U.S. might be planning to hit North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with a preemptive strike.


NIKKI HALEY: If you see him attack him a military base, if you see some sort of intercontinental ballistic missile, then obviously we're going to do that.

WELNA: Asked if by that she meant military retaliation, Haley replied, quote, "I think then the president steps in and decides what's going to happen." Michael Green was the top Asia official on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. He says attacking North Korea could spell disaster for its neighbors.

MICHAEL GREEN: A military strike is very high-risk. The North Koreans could retaliate with hundreds of missiles fired at Japan and thousands of artillery tubes fired at South Korea. That would be war. It would end up with the destruction of the regime, but it is a risk.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Korean).

WELNA: Nine days ago, North Korea paraded what it identified as missiles. Most appeared to be medium range, but others looked designed to go a lot farther. A few days later in Japan, Vice President Mike Pence assured a crowd of U.S. sailors that, as he put it, the shield stands guard, and the sword stands ready.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response.


WELNA: And yet, even if North Korea does develop a workable intercontinental ballistic missile, its purpose would be defensive rather than to attack the U.S., so says Joel Wit, an expert on North Korea and founder of the monitoring website 38 North.

JOEL WIT: The North Korean thinking about how they would use an ICBM isn't just the minute they get it, they're going to fire it off at the United States. Their thinking is that if there is a war on the Korean Peninsula and the survival of their system is threatened, then they would do that or at least make the threat to do that in order to ensure that their country wasn't wiped out.

MATTHEW FUHRMANN: I think a lot of the danger comes from things that the United States might do, not things that North Korea might do.

WELNA: That's Matthew Fuhrmann, a political scientist at Texas A&M. He has just coauthored a study showing when countries armed with nuclear weapons face off in a crisis, they tend to act with more caution lest events spiral out of control.

FUHRMANN: What concerns me is the possibility that decision makers in the United States or elsewhere don't understand that. And if you escalate too quickly without recognizing that by pushing Kim Jong Un into a corner, you might give him incentive to launch a preemptive attack. Then things could in fact be quite dangerous.

WELNA: Just how dangerous - again, North Korea expert Joel Wit.

WIT: I would say the danger is not immediate. It's not going to happen tomorrow. But unless we start moving forward with a real strategy, it's going to continue to escalate.

WELNA: Wit says at this point, he still sees no strategy coming from the Trump administration for dealing with North Korea. At the very least, he adds, talks with Pyongyang should be pursued immediately, even if it's only talks about talks. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.