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North Korea's Kim Jong Un promises to build an 'invincible military'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes trying to decipher the latest statement from North Korea's leader. On its face, it's pretty self-explanatory. Kim Jong Un says he wants to build a, quote, "invincible military." His announcement comes just a couple weeks after the country tested what it claims are new hypersonic and anti-aircraft missiles.

So what does all this signify? We're going to put that question to Jean Lee. She's an expert on North Korea at the Wilson Center here in Washington, D.C. Jean, thanks so much for being back on the program.

JEAN LEE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So much of deciphering Kim Jong Un, as you know, is about context. So in light of that, can you describe where he made these remarks?

LEE: So Kim Jong Un made these remarks while he was unveiling this huge exhibition of new weaponry - missiles and tanks. And we're just now getting a glimpse of it through North Korea's state media. Of course, we don't have any journalists there. Really an amazing exhibition, this is the type of thing when I was in North Korea that I would have been gunning to - no pun intended...

MARTIN: Right.

LEE: ...I would have wanted to see because they do serve as a reminder. You know, they're designed to strike fear in us as foreigners because they do serve as a reminder that North Korea has just continued to build these ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, even though to us they may seem like they've been quiet for the last couple years.

But when you're on the ground in North Korea, you also see that there's another goal to displays like this, and that is to inspire a sense of pride in North Koreans because it has been a couple years of uncertainty - political uncertainty when the talks between Kim Jong Un and then-President Trump fell apart a few years ago and then the pandemic, where they sealed the borders and really stopped the flow of not only people, but goods across the border. And that would have created extreme economic hardship.

MARTIN: So Jean, does that mean that this big proclamation about building an invincible military - this is supposed to be, like, a morale boost for North Koreans?

LEE: That's one message. This is Kim Jong Un saying to his people, I can protect you. I'm going to protect you from attack from the outside world. This is something - these weapons are something the North Koreans are legitimately proud of. So you know, it is a morale boost. But it has that other motivation of sending a message to the outside world.

I think we need to remember, too, that Kim Jong Un is coming up on his 10-year anniversary of rule. And so he is also setting himself up for this big moment to show his people that he's led them well and that he can defend them. So a lot of this, to me, you know - I see - of course, we take it one way, sitting in Washington, D.C., or in the United States. But there is a different type of messaging that is just equally as important inside North Korea, and that is to strengthen the sense of unity among the North Korean people.

MARTIN: Does the country even have the means to build such a military?

LEE: This is always the question is, as they keep rolling out these intercontinental ballistic missiles, these massive weapons, where is the money coming from? And it's clear that years and years of sanctions that are designed to stop the flow of money that goes into this nuclear program has not stopped the North Koreans from building them.

Now, this is an issue that I am looking at with my podcast. I have a podcast called "The Lazarus Heist." It's about North Korean cyber. But this - the work that I'm doing is not just about cyber, but also about the why and the how North Korea is devoting so much to cyber because remember that cyber is a way to get around those border closures, to get around the sanctions...

MARTIN: Right.

LEE: ...And to continue to pump money into that program.

MARTIN: And the White House is holding this big summit this week about cybersecurity. So if you're on the North Korea desk at the Pentagon or at the U.S. State Department, how do you read this latest statement from Kim Jong Un?

LEE: I think this statement is interesting because Kim Jong Un does tell his people, look; I am here to protect you; I am building these weapons to protect you. But if you read between the lines, he's leaving some wiggle room for negotiation as well, and I think that that is something that we should be paying attention to. For example, he doesn't come out charging hard against the United States. He's saying, I'm protecting you from an - a general threat. But that does leave some opportunity for negotiation. It does seem like these messages are perhaps inconsistent or contradictory. But I do think that Kim Jong Un is setting up for eventual negotiations, and that's what not only the United States, but South Korea, Japan, China and Russia should be looking for, are those opportunities for him to emerge.

MARTIN: So what he didn't say is almost as interesting as what he did say. Thank you for that.

Jean Lee is a North Korea expert, senior fellow at the Wilson Center. We appreciate it, Jean. Thanks.

LEE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.