BANGKOK — Speculation is growing that North Korea is planning to conduct an underground nuclear test to coincide with President Obama’s visit to the peninsula this week.
South Korea’s foreign minister is warning the North not to carry out a fourth nuclear test. Speaking at an international forum in Seoul, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se remarked: “If North Korea goes ahead with another nuclear test as it has publicly warned, it will be a game changer.”
Daniel Pinkston, the Northeast Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group, said Pyongyang is unlikely to worry about the South’s reaction.
“They’ve demonstrated a long dedication, persistence and resolve to dedicate a lot of resources over a long period of time. They’ve been able to bear the international pressure and sanctions and everything else. So I think it’s a clear indication that the nuclear program is very important to the leadership and so I don’t expect them to stop or reverse course,” said Pinkston.
Officials in Seoul said they are preparing for the North to conduct its fourth nuclear test or some other provocation to coincide with President Barack Obama’s two-day visit to South Korea, which begins Friday.
That day will also mark the anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s army. But some analysts, like Pinkston, expect that because military leaders will be celebrating with banquets and other events, the test would likely occur on another day.
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense says it is on an around-the-clock alert after detecting activity at the southern tunnel of the Punggye-ri testing site in North Korea.
Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry, said intelligence matters make it difficult to reveal precisely the activities detected at Punggye-ri, but numerous activities there lead analysts to believe the North could conduct a nuclear test within a short period of time.
Kim added that there is a possibility the North is trying to merely act like it is making preparations, as it has done in the past. To determine whether it is deception or real, Kim said, South Korea and the United States are sharing information about what they are detecting.
North Korea’s previous underground explosions were carried out in 2006, 2009 and last year, in defiance of warnings from the international community. All took place at Punggye-ri in a remote eastern part of the country.
South Korea’s defense ministry spokesman said the military top brass are thoroughly prepared for a fourth one to occur at any time.
Kim said the ministry and Joint Chiefs of Staff established on Monday a crisis management task force in order to strengthen the military readiness posture in anticipation of a North Korean nuclear test.
Pyongyang threatened last month to carry out a new type of nuclear test. It gave no details.
In 2010, North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment program that would give it a steady fuel supply for a nuclear arsenal. After the 2013 test, analysts said they were unable to determine if the North had used highly enriched uranium as the fuel. The first two tests were believed to have been fueled by the country’s small plutonium stockpile.