As North Korea gears up in ways that satellite images suggest are preparations for a nuclear test, experts said Pyongyang is also getting ready to deal with the aftermath of such a test – to blunt global condemnation likely to follow and defend its nuclear position while pressuring the U.S. to make concessions.
North Korea has been getting ready to conduct a nuclear test for several months, as suggested by satellite images of its only nuclear site in Punggye-ri, which the regime closed in 2018. Activity at the site was first detected by satellite imagery analyzed by the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in early March.
Activities continued to be detected at the site every month since, according to satellite images analyzed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies' (CSIS) research group Beyond Parallel.
Any such test would likely be met with international outcry, and the June 11 announcement of the appointment of seasoned diplomat Choe Son Hui as foreign minister indicates North Korea is preparing post-nuclear test strategies of offsetting international condemnation, experts say.
Choe has extensive experience dealing with the U.S. She served as the interpreter for a North Korean delegation in four-party nuclear talks in 1997, joining the six-party talks in the early 2000s. Choe was formerly the director of the North America department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, focusing on the U.S. She participated at North Korea’s two summits with the U.S. in 2018 and 2019 and was a vice-foreign minister before being promoted to head the foreign ministry.
With her appointment, North Korea is “laying the groundwork for being able to deal with the blowback from North Korean actions probably coming in the future” after it conducts a nuclear test, said Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a think tank.
Gause noted Choe can send an “articulate and very forceful” message to the international community that North Korea is a sovereign country with the right to test and possess nuclear weapons to defend itself.
As North Korea announced Choe’s new position, Kim “set forth the militant tasks to be pushed forward,” emphasizing “the right to self-defense” and “defending sovereignty,” according to its state media outlet, Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 11, the day of Choe’s appointment.
Gause said Choe is "also able to effectively deflect U.S. arguments for additional sanctions" and "engage with China to try to make sure that China keeps continuing to have North Korea's back."
A U.S.-led resolution calling for additional sanctions on North Korea in response to its ballistic missile launches was blocked by China and Russia on May 26 in support of North Korea.
Pyongyang conducted 18 rounds of non-nuclear weapons tests this year, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of targeting the U.S.
At the same time, Choe can take the “off ramp” from “the escalatory ladder” and “pivot very quickly” toward engagement with the U.S. if Pyongyang feels the need, Gause added.
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said after meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on June 14 that North Korea now appears to have completed preparations for another nuclear test.
Park said it is only a matter of a political decision by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as to when to detonate the explosives.
It would be the regime’s seventh nuclear test since 2006 and its first since September 2017.
According to the research group Beyond Parallel, preparation for a possible nuclear test at Punggye-ri’s tunnel number 3 is complete. The group said on June 15 that new activities were detected at tunnel number 4 to make it ready for a possible nuclear test.