SEOUL - South Korea's government on Thursday issued its clearest public statement to date expressing a belief that North Korea has made technical preparations to conduct another nuclear test at any time.
Defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok explained to reporters this conclusion is based on recent satellite imagery showing excavation work at the Punggye-ri site, combined with other undisclosed intelligence data
Since it appears that the recently excavated tunnel has been refilled, Kim said, it is logical to conclude that a nuclear device probably has been inserted. Thus, he added, the North could technically conduct a test any time, adding that it would be a political decision by Pyongyang that will determine whether or not a detonation is ordered.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-je said it is difficult to know for certain what is going on at the test site, but South Korea is paying continuous and close attention to it.
Another nuclear test will result in grave consequences that would not help North Korea at all, Cho warned.
North Korea is already under numerous international sanctions for its missile and nuclear programs.
The chairwoman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, leading a congressional delegation to Seoul, said she would not be surprised if Pyongyang did something during the upcoming holiday period in both South Korea and the United States.
"The North Korean regime is hell-bent on being a belligerent actor," she said. "And I think that on holidays or sad commemorations like Memorial Day weekend is when the leadership tries to provoke the democratic allies into action."
A senior U.S. diplomat, traveling in East Asia this week has been warning North Korea not to proceed with another nuclear test attempt.
Speaking in Tokyo Thursday, Glyn Davies, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, said he does not have "any particular wisdom or judgment" to offer on how likely it is that North Korea will engage in another provocation.
North Korea this week indicated it will push ahead with its nuclear program. The statement, attributed to a foreign ministry spokesman in Pyongyang, said it had not planned another test but what it called continuing "U.S. hostility" was compelling North Korea not to abandon such activities.
North Korea followed long-range rocket launches in 2006 and 2009 with nuclear tests.
Last month it launched what Western governments declared was a multi-stage missile. The Unha-3 rocket exploded over the Yellow Sea, less than two minutes after lift-off. North Korea said it was attempting to peacefully place an earth observation satellite into orbit.