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Is There Strategy Behind North Korea's Tests?

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

One can safely assume it was only a coincidence that North Korea started its volley of test missiles within minutes of the lift-off of the space shuttle Discovery.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

NPR's senior news analyst, Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: What the hermit kingdom had in mind with its missile firings, including a botched intercontinental missile, remains a puzzle. It's hard to fathom the series of launchings that brought the condemnation of the world down on its head.

In the past, a purpose behind North Korea's behavior could usually be discerned. In 1994, it traded off its weapons-grade reactors for civilian light water reactors and a lot of economic and food aid. The agreed framework, as it was called, broke down in 2003 and North Korea returned to its nuclear weapons program, announcing at various times how many bombs it had. But China and South Korea continue their efforts to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, inducing the United States to join them.

But North Korea decided to show it not only had bombs, but also a delivery system. William Perry, secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, and his assistant secretary, Ashton Carter, proposed that the long-range missile be destroyed on the launching pad. That did not happen. As it turned out, bombing wasn't necessary.

So now begins a familiar cycle of action and reaction, calls for United Nations sanctions, suspension of foreign aid. And the question is, why? Why is North Korea risking its chances of gaining international recognition? Does North Korea need its cold war? Is there a dissention in North Korea's leadership that requires an external threat to survive? One is left asking what North Korea was hoping to do with its firecrackers in the sky.

This is Daniel Schorr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr passed away on Friday, July 23, 2010. See an obituary, photo gallery and an archive of Schorr's commentaries for NPR.