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What's Behind Pyongyang's Statements on Possible Nuclear Test?

  • Kim Hwan Yong

FILE - A South Korean man watches TV news showing file footage of a North Korean nuclear test at the Seoul train station in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 12, 2013.

FILE - A South Korean man watches TV news showing file footage of a North Korean nuclear test at the Seoul train station in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 12, 2013.

North Korea’s recent threats implying a long-range rocket launch and nuclear test are sparking wide speculation among North Korea experts in Seoul about the communist country’s real intentions behind the overtures.

Many experts seem to agree that there is a high possibility North Korea will fire a long-range rocket in defiance of international opposition.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at South Korea’s University of North Korea Studies, said Pyongyang is trying to tout Kim Jong Un’s achievements by holding a high-profile event. The celebration of the ruling party anniversary on October 10 is a likely candidate for the campaign, according to Yang.

“North Korea has repeatedly indicated its intent to conduct the launch this year. North Koreans will use the celebration to declare the Kim Jong Un era,” Yang told VOA this week.

Yang said Kim has been showing his own leadership style since late last year, when the country marked the end of a three-year mourning period for the late leader Kim Jong Il. In a Korean custom, children observe three years of mourning after the death of a parent.

Previous pattern

North Korea’s warning appears to fit its previous pattern of a rocket launch with subsequent nuclear test. The country is known to have conducted three underground nuclear tests since 2006, with each test preceded by a long-range rocket launch.

South Korea suspects North Korea began preparing for another nuclear test shortly after its third nuclear test in early 2013. A South Korean official told VOA the government believes North Korea is technically ready for that fourth nuclear test.

One expert who asked to remain anonymous said North Korea could conduct a new type of nuclear test to bolster its nuclear capabilities, noting Pyongyang’s statement that its uranium enrichment plant and 5-megawatt reactor were “rearranged, changed or readjusted.” In March 2014, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry warned that the country could carry out a “new form” of nuclear test.

Some experts remain skeptical of Pyongyang’s intent to conduct another nuclear test.

“North Korea has already demonstrated its nuclear capability through previous tests, although a secret test involving a uranium enrichment program is a possibility. What is important for North Korea now is to develop missile technology,” said Jeung Young-tae, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, South Korea’s state-run institute.

Significance questioned

Chang Yong-seok, a senior research fellow at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace & Unification Studies, questioned the significance of Pyongyang’s nuclear statement.

“It is worth noticing North Korea indicated it could use a nuclear test as a countermeasure to international pressure and sanctions. However, the statement came from the head of the Atomic Energy Institute trying to show off the enhancement of the country’s nuclear capability to the world,” said Chang.

Most experts say China’s position is a likely factor in North Korea’s decision on the move.

“If North Korea launches a long-range rocket and claims it is a satellite, China will be in a difficult position to condemn it. However, if North Korea conducts a nuclear test, China has no option but to take it as a clear provocation and adopt a stronger measure against North Korea,” said Choi Gang, deputy chief of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, a private institute in Seoul.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned North Korea of “severe consequences." Kerry vowed to “put pressure on North Korea in order to get them to come to a place where they understand that their people, their country, will never move forward until they live up to their international obligations.”

The top U.S. diplomat said Washington is in discussions with its partners in the six-party talks about how to cope with Pyongyang’s threats.

Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report.

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