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North Korea, Under UN Scrutiny, Turns to H-Bomb 'Scare Tactic'

FILE - North Korean soldiers parade through Kim Il Sung Square with their missiles and rockets during a mass military parade.

On the same day that the United Nations met to discuss North Korea’s systematic human rights violations this week, Kim Jong Un boasted that his country has developed a hydrogen bomb.

Long-time North Korea watchers say the timing of Kim’s comments was no coincidence.

Professor Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea analyst at Dongguk University in Seoul, said the North Korean leader’s comments are part of an established strategy that the isolated, communist regime has used in the past to counter criticism and gain concessions from the international community.

“I don’t think this claim will have a huge impact. But it is a part of the process in which North Korea tries to set a confrontational position against the international society,” said Professor Kim.

While North Korea tested nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, and 2013, there is no verifiable proof that it has developed a hydrogen bomb. The device, also known as a thermonuclear bomb, is significantly more powerful than an atomic bomb.

US reaction

The United States was quick to discount Kim Jong Un’s claim while at the same time calling on North Korea to comply with international obligations to dismantle its nuclear program.

“At this point, you know, the information that we have access to calls into serious question those claims. But we take very seriously the risks and the threat that is posed by the North Korean regime and their ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said during a regular briefing.

Professor Kim said the North Korean leader’s comment that his country is a “powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate a self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb,” was not made with a specific diplomatic objective in mind, but was more a familiar scare tactic used when the Pyongyang leadership feels threatened.

“It is a behavior to bring the international society’s attention on North Korea’s nuclear power by suggesting a shocking issue such as a hydrogen bomb,” he said.

On Thursday the U.N. Security Council held its second meeting on human rights in North Korea, which has been accused by a U.N. inquiry of abuses comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.

The meeting was held over the objections of China, Russia, Venezuela and Angola to consider a resolution passed last year by the General Assembly to refer the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

"The international community has a collective responsibility to protect the population of the DPRK, and to consider the wider implications of the reported grave human rights situation for the stability of the region," Jeffrey Feltman, U.N. political affairs chief, told the council.

North Korea did not attend the U.N. meeting, but has denied allegations of systematic human rights abuses.

Korean tensions

While not surprising, Kim Jong Un’s provocative comments come at a time of easing inter-Korean tensions.

On Friday North and South Korea began high-level talks to improve relations that will likely focus on setting up regular separated family reunions and resuming cross border tours that were suspended in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers.

After a border incident that nearly escalated into a large-scale military conflict in August, Pyongyang has exhibited uncharacteristic restraint, cooperating with Seoul to host separated families reunions and not following through on threats to launch a long-range rocket or a nuclear test.

Sino-North Korea relations, which deteriorated after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in 2013, seem to also be improving with recent high-level visits and reports of expanded economic development at the China, North Korea border.

While officials in Seoul have said Beijing has recently acted as a moderating influence on Pyongyang, North Korea has not backed off its nuclear ambitions.

Still, in this instance, Kim Jong Un may be exaggerating North Korea’s nuclear capability to develop an H-bomb. Nuclear experts also believe that North Korea has not yet developed miniaturized nuclear devices to fit on a long-range missile even though Pyongyang claims it has that capability.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.