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North Korea Threatens Of 'Security Crisis' Over U.S.-South Korea Military Drills

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. and South Korea begin joint military exercises next week. North Korea has warned that if they do, the allies will face a security crisis. Seoul and Washington are watching for signs of military provocations from the North. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, Pyongyang has some new additions to its arsenal.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In an apparent protest against the exercises, North Korea on Tuesday stopped answering hotlines between the two Koreas that were reconnected only two weeks ago after a more than yearlong silence. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, warned that they would have to respond to the drills by strengthening their own military, including their nuclear arsenal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Korean).

KUHN: In January, North Korea rolled some of its newest military hardware through Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square in a nighttime parade. The hardware appeared to include the country's newest and biggest submarine-launched ballistic missile, or SLBM. The country last test fired an earlier model in 2019. Shin Jong-Woo is a senior analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Defense and Security Forum think tank.

SHIN JONG-WOO: (Through interpreter) If you look at the history, the weapons North Korea has tested have first been revealed in military parades. So we believe that North Korea will soon test launch these weapons.

KUHN: Shin says North Korea has also been working on a new submarine based on an old Soviet design. It could potentially launch nuclear armed missiles at U.S. bases as far away as Guam or even the continental U.S. if the sub can make it farther East into the Pacific. He adds that being able to launch missiles from both land and sea would make the North's nuclear arsenal more likely to survive an enemy attack.

SHIN: (Through interpreter) Even if we destroy all their ground launchers, North Korea will still have nuclear weapons available. That's why we call SLBMs a retaliation strategy which can be used to deter the U.S. and South Korean militaries.

KUHN: But North Korea doesn't have to test launch any missiles for them to have a political effect, says Paul Choi, principal of StratWays Group, a Seoul-based consultancy and a former South Korean military officer.

PAUL CHOI: North Korea is trying to complicate alliance decision-making at the strategic and political level. I think it's trying to drive wedges between the United States and South Korea, to decouple the alliance.

KUHN: Choi says Kim has made it clear he intends to develop tactical nuclear weapons for the battlefield. He says Kim could first use them or threaten to use them.

CHOI: But then argue, we'll stop here. Let's end the fight. But if you decide to continue, we still have nuclear weapons that we can launch at Seattle, Wash., or New York.

KUHN: This raises the possibility that the U.S. might choose to sacrifice South Korea in order to save the U.S. homeland. And that leaves South Korea no choice, Choi argues, but to keep developing its own weapons and military capabilities independent of the U.S. But he denies that this implies a break from the alliance.

CHOI: Or that South Korea would act irresponsibly or recklessly in a proactive fashion to attack North Korea and thereby increasing instability between the two Koreas.

KUHN: In June, Kim Jong Un told his country to prepare for both dialogue and confrontation with the U.S. For now, experts remain divided about whether North Korea will opt to return to the negotiating table or to the missile launcher, whether based on land or at sea. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOLUTION OF STARS' "PRETENDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.