October 22, 2010 09:59
The U.S. is taking a close look at recent signs of activity at North Korea's nuclear test site following claims that the North is well on its way to developing nuclear warheads small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.
There are fears that the North will conduct another test aimed at developing high-performance nuclear weapons as part of efforts to consolidate the succession of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's third son Jong-un and to become a "powerful and prosperous nation" by 2012.
The U.S. government also suspects that ostensible test preparations are aimed at pressuring it to resume the six-party nuclear talks.
A senior diplomatic source in Washington said, "There is likelihood that the North is deliberately making a show of brisk activity in Punggye-ri, North Hamgyong Province to give the impression that it could conduct another nuclear test if the U.S. won't engage in talks within about three months."
The North recently launched a charm offensive toward South Korea and the U.S., with senior North Korean officials urging resumption of the six-party talks. And the official Rodong Sinmun daily said on Oct. 16, "What the North and South need right now is an atmosphere of dialogue."
The impoverished North is apparently in dire need of economic assistance from outside to lay the foundations for Kim junior's succession. But the prevailing views in Seoul and Washington are that tensions caused by the North's attack on the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in March have not been resolved.
International security ambassador Nam Joo-hong said, "The North is pressed for time because of Kim Jong-il's deteriorating health, so it's now sending a message that it can make trouble if the others won't come to the dialogue table as soon as possible."
The North has often tried to get out of a tight spot by playing the nuclear card. It conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 after the George W. Bush administration imposed financial sanctions, and the second in 2009 when the regime became worried due to Kim senior's health problems.
This year, international sanctions have been underway since the sinking of the Cheonan, and Kim Jong-un's position is not yet assured given his youth and lack of experience. Under the circumstances, experts say the regime must be feeling under threat from both home and abroad.
It would take some more nuclear tests until the North can hope for international recognition as a nuclear state like India or Pakistan. A South Korean security official said, "There's enough reason for the North to conduct a third nuclear test, even if it doesn't do so immediately."
But other experts speculate the North is in no position to carry out another test, because that would make it difficult for China, its sole international protector, to block fresh UN Security Council sanctions after the Stalinist country ignored earlier UN resolutions.
Meanwhile, an American expert pointed out that what looks like a massive excavation project in an area near the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor is aimed at building a new one. David Albright, the chairman of the Institute for Science and International Security, made the claim during a seminar at the U.S. Congress on Tuesday.
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