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Tensions in East Asia rise with North Korean ICBM launch and U.S.'s nuclear-armed sub

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to take the next few minutes to talk through rising tensions in East Asia. Now, there are several things going on at once. This week North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that flew for a longer time than any of its previous ICBMs. The U.S., meanwhile, is expected to send a nuclear-armed submarine to the Korean Peninsula - first time in decades that's happened. And on top of that, tensions are increasing between China and U.S. allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea. So what is driving the spike in regional tensions? Well, NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who is usually based in Seoul, in South Korea, but who this week is here in Washington, is here in the studio. So nice to see you, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Nice to see you in person, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK. Start with Pyongyang and these missile tests. I know it's always hard to have any visibility into what North Korea is up to, but what are they up to here?

KUHN: Well, they tested their newest missile this week, which is theoretically capable of hitting the U.S. And they first tested this missile three months ago. And so we knew they were going to be doing more to perfect it. These missile tests happen so often that we, in South Korea, are not terribly startled by them. But I will say that in May, there was one which triggered alerts on our cell phones at 6 in the morning and told us to seek shelter or evacuate. And for the first time, I found out that there is actually a shelter, an evacuation center in the building across the street from me. So some of these tests...

KELLY: You had to investigate where you would go...

KUHN: Yes.

KELLY: ...Evacuate if you were going to have to do it.

KUHN: Exactly.

KELLY: OK. So that's a little bit of what is happening in the air in the region or might be happening in the air. What about this U.S. move to send a submarine? This is presumably to try to deter adversaries, reassure allies?

KUHN: That's right. The allies want reassurance. They're feeling nervous. However, critics say that, you know, sending the submarines is really more for show because they could fire these missiles from a far greater distance and they'd be safer. Whereas if they travel into the shallow waters near the Korean Peninsula, they'll be more vulnerable. And sometimes it's actually easier to deter the adversaries than to reassure the allies. South Korea is so nervous that it has been talking earlier this year about the possibility of getting its own nuclear weapons, not relying on the U.S.'s. And the U.S. had to tamp that down. They said that will not be happening. And so that has shown the difficulty of reassuring allies.

KELLY: I mentioned growing tension between China and U.S. allies in Asia, specifically Japan, South Korea. What is behind that?

KUHN: Well, both South Korea and Japan are under conservative governments that have drawn closer to each other, closer to Washington, and distanced themselves from both China and North Korea. And that has caused frictions. For example, South Korea's - for example, China's ambassador to South Korea, Xing Haiming, said last month to South Korea, do not bet against us. Do not bet against China. So they have a tricky task to try to shake Seoul and Tokyo loose from their alliances with Washington, instead of pushing them deeper into Washington's embrace.

KELLY: And meanwhile, complicating even that, there are tensions between these two allies, between Japan and South Korea. Walk me through what's at stake there and whether that's improving.

KUHN: Yes. Well, the U.S.' strategy for dealing with China is centered on working with its allies, South Korea and Japan. However, what it would like, which is a three-way alliance, is not what it has. It has two separate alliances in Japan and South Korea because of their historical tensions and feuds don't always work together. Now, partially through the U.S.'s involvement, they - South Korea and Japan - have begun to mend fences, but they still have many unresolved issues. One is the issue of Japan's use of forced labor of Koreans during World War II. Many South Koreans are not happy with the deal that South Korea has proposed on this. And another example is the crippled Fukushima nuclear reactor from which Japan is going to start emptying treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. And South Korea's government says that's OK, but South Korea's people are not happy with it. So all of these things could pose difficulties for this crucial relationship that the U.S. is counting on in East Asia.

KELLY: Crucial relationships. It sounds like it's (laughter) many different paths that the U.S. is going to be needing to work at once. That is NPR's Anthony Kuhn, usually in Seoul for us, this week in Washington and right in front of me here in the studio. Great to see you. Thank you.

KUHN: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.