MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We'll start the program today hearing about North Korea. Today is North Korea's Day of the Sun, the holiday that celebrates the birth of the nation's founder, Kim Il-sung. As has been the case in the past, there was a huge military parade in the capital Pyongyang, but this year, the regime showed off what appeared to be missiles with long range capability. On the other hand, no big weapons tests were carried out. U.S. and regional leaders had been concerned about a potential nuclear test or missile launch today.
And that's led to rising tensions in the region, including an escalating war of words between Pyongyang and Washington. A fleet of U.S. ships has even been sent to the region. We wanted to hear more about all this, so we called Jeffrey Lewis. He is the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He's with us now. Mr. Lewis, thanks so much for speaking with us.
JEFFREY LEWIS: It's a pleasure to talk to you.
MARTIN: A number of analysts were expecting a big nuclear test or a missile launch today, but you are telling us that you actually weren't surprised to hear that it didn't happen. Why not?
LEWIS: Well, as you said, this is the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea. He's a - he's almost sort of a god in that country and every year his birthday, I kind of call it (foreign language spoken) Christmas. It's the big holiday for the North Koreans. And so they normally celebrate it with parades, and then they save the fireworks, so to speak, for later on. So we thought there'd be a parade. We thought (laughter) we'd see maybe one or two new missiles, but, boy, we saw a lot.
MARTIN: What is the significance of what we did see today?
LEWIS: Well, I think the first thing to say is it was bewildering. We saw many new systems that we had never seen before or things that we had seen before and that were heavily modified. And so even people who follow their missile program closely, like I do, are still scratching our heads. But I think the big takeaway is we saw at least two, and possibly three, different systems for launching an ICBM, which is to say a missile that could reach the United States. Now, whether that's real or not, we can't say, but the North Koreans really tried to make an impression, and I think they did it.
MARTIN: Yeah, tell me more about that. What message are the North Koreans trying to send?
LEWIS: Well, you know, I think in the United States we sort of laugh at them. We treat them like they're a little bit of a joke, but they don't think they're a joke. And I think the North Koreans long ago concluded that their weapons programs are a way of getting us to take them seriously. And so I think a lot of times, we have expectations for the North Koreans, and the North Koreans like to defy those expectations. They like to show us that they're serious about this, that they really can do this and that if there is a joke, it's on us, not them.
MARTIN: Any reaction from other world leaders?
LEWIS: I haven't seen a lot of reactions to the parade yet, but I wouldn't really expect that. I mean, really, I can't emphasize enough this was a very surprising parade. We saw so many things we have never seen before. It will take us several days to just sort through everything we saw and try to make intelligent guesses about what was on display.
MARTIN: Could you just give me just a little bit more detail about what struck you, what exactly was on display?
LEWIS: We saw two different launchers for an ICBM. Now, these things carry canisters, so you can't see inside. You don't know if there's a missile inside the canister or if it's empty, but they were giant canisters suggesting that they were designed for giant missiles of a sort we haven't seen. And so two more ICBM programs - that's certainly attention-getting.
MARTIN: Well, one of the questions I have for you you sort of alluded to is how do we know that this is real capability and these just aren't dummy missiles?
LEWIS: So, first of all, you don't know that. And in fact, it would be unusual to parade a real missile, especially if you didn't need to. If you have a canister where you can't see the missile, why bother to roll one through the city? What I would say is we have looked carefully at many of the pictures, both at this parade in the past. And often, the missiles are real, but even when the missiles are what you might call simulators - fakes I suppose - it's not unusual for a missile program to build a model of a missile before moving on to a real missile.
And so we look at parades like this not merely to assess where the North Koreans are technically at this moment but to get a sense of where their program is heading. And so while the North Koreans may fib a little bit about the progress they have made, usually they're pretty honest about where their programs are heading. So that's why two different ICBM launchers gets our attention.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to ask if there has been any fundamental shift in U.S.-North Korea relations since the Trump administration took office. As you might imagine, President Trump has been tweeting today. So far, he's said that he does expect China to step up and deal with North Korea. What have you seen?
LEWIS: Well, every president comes in and says we're going to do things differently, and I'm going to get a different result. And the reality is the U.S. just doesn't have that many options. And so every administration ends up with a policy that looks more or less the same.
MARTIN: Jeffrey Lewis is the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey He also co-hosts a podcast called "Arms Control Wonk." Mr. Lewis, thanks so much for speaking with us. We greatly appreciate it.
LEWIS: Sure, it was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.