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North Korea says it is preparing for war with the U.S.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

North Korea says it is preparing for war with the United States. State media reported that leader Kim Jong Un was ordering accelerated military preparations to counter what he called unprecedented, confrontational moves by the U.S. Jenny Town is a senior fellow at the Stimson Center - it's a foreign affairs think tank - where she directs its 38 North program that focuses on North Korea. And she's here with us to talk about all this. Jenny Town, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JENNY TOWN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I want to mention here that we have heard similar rhetoric from North Korea before. So I have two questions about this. Why now? And how concerned should the U.S. be about this?

TOWN: I mean, you're right. We have heard a lot of this, especially towards the end of the year now. I think we need to keep in mind a couple of things. One, they're doing sort of their State of the Union sort of address here at their - at the Workers' Party meeting that's going on right now at the plenary and wrapping up what they see as what they've accomplished for the year, what their challenges are going to be and what their goals for the next years are going to be, as well. It's important to keep that in mind. But also, the complaints that they have are pretty consistent of the way that the U.S. and South Korea have been doing back-to-back military - large-scale, live-fire military exercises for months on end. The increase in, you know, nuclear consultation - the things that are going on with that, the North Koreans consider to be practicing war and that they are sort of mirroring that language back to the U.S.

MARTIN: So that's what they mean by - so that's what he meant by unprecedented confrontational moves.

TOWN: Yes. So it's a lot of - the more the U.S. and South Korea talk about nuclear consultation and the nuclear exercises and things like this, the more we hear this rhetoric out of North Korea that they're sort of doing the same. If you're going to plan for this, we're going to plan for it, too.

MARTIN: Now, how plausible is it that North Korea might have the ability to ramp up a military that poses a real threat?

TOWN: Well, you know, it definitely has the ability to ramp up. How much of a threat that really is at the end of the day, you know, is questionable. But how much of a threat are we willing to tolerate, either? You know, the geography requires very little to be damaging, right? And so here's the question - is, you know, as they're ramping up, is it - are they actually ramping up for war? Or are they ramping up rhetoric? And I think that's the - a big open question these days.

MARTIN: So is there any scenario under which North Korea could be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons? Or is that just wishful thinking?

TOWN: Well, these days, it's wishful thinking. We have crossed a line where the North Koreans see their nuclear weapons program in a very different way than they did in 2017, for instance, and even in 2018, where they were willing to negotiate about the nuclear program. The difference now is that they've enshrined it into law, as well as now a constitutional amendment mandating the continued development of WMD. So everything dealing with North Korea's nuclear program going forward is going to be that much harder.

And the real challenge here is, how do you convince an insecure country to disarm? We're not preventing them from getting nuclear weapons. They have nuclear weapons. The question is - now is, how do we convince them that they're better off without nuclear weapons? And certainly, the more we remind them that we could destroy them at any time, you know, with our nuclear weapons, the hard - to make that case.

MARTIN: That's fascinating. This was really helpful and interesting. How would you assess the progress of its nuclear program?

TOWN: It's made leaps and bounds. You know, it really did set goals. It knocked them down one by one. And now with the increased cooperation with Russia, it has the potential to do a lot more.

MARTIN: That's Jenny Town. She's a senior fellow at the Stimson Center. That's a foreign affairs think tank where she, as you just heard, focuses on North Korea. Jenny Town, thank you so much.

TOWN: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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