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North Korea Warns Its Nuclear Arsenal Is A Button-Push Away


After a year of missile launches, a nuclear test and name-calling with President Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is starting 2018 with yet another threat to the U.S.


MARTIN: In his annual address today, Kim Jong Un warned the U.S. never to start a war with North Korea. And he said he keeps a nuclear launch button sitting on his desk. He also made his own dark New Year's resolution to focus on the mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. NPR's Rob Schmitz is covering this from Shanghai. Rob, a fairly grim message from Kim Jong Un. I suppose, though, it plays well domestically for him.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Yeah, I mean, like many of the North's communications directed at the outside world, there's a fair amount of posturing here. And a lot of that posturing is, of course, for his audience back home. Kim warned the U.S. that its mainland is within range of a nuclear strike from the North. And as you mentioned, he has the button to launch that strike on his desk. So obviously a message there that we, as a nation, have arrived on the global stage as a serious nuclear power.

He went on to say North Korea's greatest achievements of 2017 was the quote, "historic accomplishment of completing our nuclear capabilities." And he said the U.S. would no longer dare to strike North Korea. So that's another message to the home audience that he's working hard to protect them. He went on to say that his country is a responsible nuclear nation that loves peace. And he said that as long as there's no aggression directed at North Korea, his country does not intend to use these newfound nuclear powers.

MARTIN: Well, that sounds positive. I mean, does it - does that indicate that he could be open for some kind of diplomatic talks?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, and actually he did mention that. I mean, after taking this threatening tone against the U.S., he softened his approach to his southern neighbor, South Korea, and he said, he wished for a peaceful resolution with the South. He wished South Korea all the best for hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics, and he made a surprise call for immediate dialogue with Seoul to discuss the North's participation in the games. And if such talks would happen, it would be the first time the two Koreas have had an official dialogue since South Korean president Moon Jae-in took power last May.

MARTIN: So, Rob, we have heard, for the past year plus that the road to getting North Korea to change its behavior leads through China.


MARTIN: As we look towards 2018 - I mean, you've thought a lot about this - are we likely to see China change, toughen even, its position on North Korea in the year ahead?

SCHMITZ: Well, China claims that it has toughened up on North Korea. And it definitely, I think, will continue to make it seem, at least, like it is toughening up on North Korea. But it's sometimes hard to know whether it really is. You know, China's been caught off guard lately because of reports that Chinese ships have been selling oil to North Korean ships in violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions. President Trump tweeted that the Chinese were caught red-handed. And so China's been busy defending itself on that.

Officially, China usually tries to stand aside when it comes to tensions between U.S. and North Korea. And it often will call for peace and more dialogue. But behind that official stance, Chinese troops have been busy along China's border with North Korea, constructing refugee camps for North Koreans in case that there's a war. A few Chinese towns along that same border have also started educating their residents of what to do in the event of a nuclear blast.

So on the outside, China has been defending itself, as well as calling for a peaceful resolution to these tensions. But inside the country, they've been sort of preparing for the worst.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting this morning from Shanghai on the annual address by North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. Hey, Rob, thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.