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Weighing a Response to North Korea

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. North Korea made headlines around the world after a bold announcement that they tested a nuclear weapon. Joining me to talk about the latest global crisis is NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster. Welcome.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi.

CHIDEYA: So how do you parse this out? The U.S. called North Korea part of the axis of evil.

SHUSTER: Right.

CHIDEYA: And one of the other members of the axis of evil, Iran, has said okay, we're going to have nuclear fuel but it's not for nuclear weapons.

SHUSTER: Right.

CHIDEYA: North Korea is not even messing around. They basically said this is a weapons program. How do you parse out what this does to the U.S.? Does it raise any stakes for the U.S. and then globally?

SHUSTER: I think the North Korean government has been raising stakes for the United States for many years. It has had an acknowledged nuclear weapons program since the late 1980s and started to process plutonium that could be used to make nuclear bombs in the early 1990s.

In 1994, the Clinton administration got an agreement with North Korea to freeze their plutonium program. And for almost 10 years it was frozen and the North Koreans did not make more plutonium and didn't, as far as the United States knew at the time, didn't make nuclear weapons. But that broke down after President Bush came into office. And in 2003, the North Koreans started the program again and have been making plutonium ever since. And now have, it is believed, a possible arsenal of nuclear weapons on the order of six to 12. And they tested one of them this week.

In effect, the North Koreans are saying nothing that the United States has tried to do over the recent years or over the last 15 years has prevented them from taking this step. And now it's up to the United States to figure out what this means for the world, what this means for security in Northeast Asia and for security in the United States, and take efforts to address that.

It has become a very, very difficult security problem. The United States, the Bush administration in particular, hasn't handled it well in the last few years, and now they have an even bigger problem on their hands. And I think there's a lot of flailing going on, frankly, among policy-makers and analysts about what to do now.

CHIDEYA: North Korea has been struggling economically. There have been a lot of pretty tragic pictures to come out of children with severe malnutrition. There are constantly people trying to escape the nation. At this point, was China one of the last allies, and did North Korea alienate China with this move?

SHUSTER: It's clear that North Korea has alienated the Chinese leadership with this move. The Chinese leadership laid a lot on the line by trying to convince the North Koreans not to do this, and they did it anyway. China is the big power, the only friend of North Korea in the region.

So, yeah, this was a kind of thumb in the eye to the Chinese leadership. And for the first time now, China seems to be willing to sign on to some kind of economic-sanctions pressure through the U.N. Security Council to put pressure on North Korea.

But China is greatly worried about stability on the Korean peninsula. It has a long border with North Korea. If there is chaos or the full collapse of the economy or government in North Korea, China will have to absorb much of the fallout from that in the form of refugees, the increased need for aid, that kind of thing.

So China has been pursuing all along what they believe is policies to encourage stability in North Korea. It's not clear now whether they can maintain those policies.

CHIDEYA: Mike Shuster, thanks so much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Farai Chideya
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist who has worked in print, television, online, and radio. Prior to joining NPR's News & Notes, Chideya hosted Your Call, a daily news and cultural call-in show on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM. Chideya has also been a correspondent for ABC News, anchored the prime time program Pure Oxygen on the Oxygen women's channel, and contributed commentaries to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. She got her start as a researcher and reporter at Newsweek magazine. In 1997 Newsweek named her to its "Century Club" of 100 people to watch.
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.
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