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North Korea Launched ICBM, Secretary Of State Tillerson Says


One way to read North Korea's latest missile test is as a direct challenge to the Trump administration. And here's the response so far. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says launching an intercontinental ballistic missile represents an escalation of the nuclear threat to the U.S. and its allies. Global action, he wrote in a statement, is required to stop a global threat. Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon correspondent, is here to tell us what that means. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KELLY: What do we think Tillerson means by global action?

BOWMAN: Well, when you hear global action, you think military action. But clearly, he's talking about diplomatic action here. If you look at his whole quote, he talks about any country that hosts North Korean guest workers, provides any economic or military benefit or fails to fully implement U.N. resolutions - basically, you're helping North Korea. So it appears he's focusing on China. China is the main trading partner with North Korea. Eighty-five percent of North Korean trade goes to - was with China.

KELLY: They share a border, of course.

BOWMAN: Right. And already, you know, you've seen the U.S. go after a small Chinese bank working with North Korea. There's no longer any access to U.S. financial institutions. So look for more of that perhaps, you know, going after Chinese banks that deal with North Korea, maybe Chinese companies, to put more pressure to end North Korea's nuclear and missile systems.

KELLY: Although worth noting that the U.S. leaning on China to try to get China to lean on North Korea is not a new strategy for the U.S.

BOWMAN: No, they've been doing it for quite some time. And frankly, they've been putting all their eggs in the diplomatic basket. People I talked with at the Pentagon said listen, this is all Rex Tillerson's show. It may come back to us someday if nothing works. But right now, it's all diplomatic.

KELLY: But presumably, the Pentagon has military strategies that they are developing as fallback measures should the diplomacy not work.

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. They've been working on those for decades. And, of course, it's all classified. But you talk to people, what could you do in a situation like that? And people say, well, you could take out their launch sites, their ICBM launch sites, their command and control centers. You could even send a message.

Just take out something, you know, let's say a ship or something just to send the message that we can do this. We can go after you. Or more likely, massive cyberattacks to try to shut down the whole system and prevent any sort of launches or any sort of military action. But again, they're pushing the diplomatic efforts now. Even with all this tough talk, it's going to be diplomacy...

KELLY: OK, let's...

BOWMAN: ...At least for a while.

KELLY: All right. Right, right, right. Let's bring in what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is saying. He has called the missile test a package of gifts for the U.S. on Independence Day. And he called for more such gifts. Is the Pentagon read that there might be more coming?

BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. He's been pushing forward on his missile tests, building up the nuclear efforts as well, working on that. What he doesn't have yet, they're saying, is being able to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to put it onto an intercontinental ballistic missile. But both programs are moving forward. And everybody at the Pentagon, every time there's a holiday, they say, well, get ready. There'll probably be some sort of a launch by North Korea.

KELLY: And sure enough, North Korea delivered on July Fourth.

BOWMAN: They did indeed.

KELLY: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.