DAVID GREENE, HOST:
North Korea tested what appears to be its longest-range ballistic missile yet. It flew high above the International Space Station before turning around and landing in the waters near Japan. This test was announced on state-run Korea Central Television (ph), where the broadcaster said it was a success.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Korean).
GREENE: "It was a success," that announcement said. Now yesterday, President Trump said, quote, "it is a situation that we will handle," end quote. And he consulted with Defense Secretary James Mattis who had this to say.
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JAMES MATTIS: The bottom line is it's a continued effort to build a ballistic missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace and certainly the United States.
GREENE: Let's go to the region now. NPR's Elise Hu is covering this from Seoul.
Good morning, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: So I got to say after the last test - I mean, I was at a dinner here in Los Angeles. And people were talking, I would say, like, semi-seriously about this threat and whether a North Korean missile could actually hit the West Coast, Los Angeles - how quickly that could happen. I mean, what is the practical threat here?
HU: Well, in theory, this missile, if flown at a flattened trajectory, could hit the U.S. East Coast. So it could go beyond the West Coast. But we say...
GREENE: Even farther, wow.
HU: That's right. But we emphasize in theory only because if it were loaded with a warhead, the missile would be heavier. So we don't know in actuality how far this missile could fly if loaded with a warhead. But this is still a significant advance in North Korea's capability.
GREENE: OK. So they have not yet shown that they could actually put a nuclear warhead on a missile and travel anywhere near this far. That hasn't been demonstrated yet.
HU: So far, yes, that's right.
GREENE: So I feel like we've been watching the development of North Korea's program kind of in incremental steps. What has changed here in actuality?
HU: Well, North Korea calls this missile Hwasong-15. The other two were called Hwasong-14. Now this is the third intercontinental ballistic missile launch this year. So that's what I mentioned, the other two. So those were the Pukguksong-14. This is the Pukguksong-15. So this one is enough of a hardware upgrade to get a different name.
And the backdrop here is the launch came at a time of relative calm. Two and a half months have passed since the last test. And so some in the administration thought the calm might be a sign of progress with the sanctions and pressure policy. But instead, no, North Korea continued with its testing. And mainly this demonstrates that Pyongyang has advanced its program to this point, which Pyongyang is saying that it has completed its state nuclear force at this point.
GREENE: All right. So if countries like the United States and officials elsewhere might've thought that this sanctions-and-pressure policy was working - if it's not working, given this test, does the policy change?
HU: It's unclear because so far, you know, both Japan and the U.S. have really stayed the course on trying to increase pressure. China has helped with the sanctions, implementation and enforcement. But what could change here at this point - and what's interesting - is that North Korea said explicitly, it has completed its state nuclear force, meaning that it may believe it doesn't need to test again. And that is a potential opening for diplomacy according to many North Korea watchers that I've spoken to.
The State Department also said yesterday that negotiation is still a viable option. And so North Korea watchers believe that North Korea had wanted to be more fully capable of reaching the U.S. before it would want to talk. And now Pyongyang has said it's reached its goal. So it'll be interesting to see if there are signals out of North Korea about possibly returning to the table at this point. But of course, it would require that the U.S. be willing to concede something. And that's a big question mark over this whole issue.
GREENE: A big question mark, given that would involve President Trump, who's used - at least outwardly - such bellicose language, being willing to concede something if they actually sat down at the table with the North Koreans, which is an open question.
HU: Right. And he did speak about the situation saying that, quote, "it's a situation we will handle." But of course, afterwards, he offered no details.
GREENE: Not knowing what that means. NPR's Seoul correspondent, Elise Hu.
HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.