October 22, 2010 13:47
South Korean and U.S. authorities have detected signs of unusual activity at North Korea's nuclear test site, leading to fears that it is preparing for another test. These include a lot of traffic and apparent repairs to a tunnel that collapsed after the two earlier nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Judging from the latest signs, experts project it would take around three months before a test can be conducted.
The magnitude of North Korea's first nuclear test was 0.8-kiloton (1 kiloton equals 1,000 tons of TNT), while the strength of the second test was 4-5 kilotons. The magnitude of the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima in 1945 was 15 kilotons. The relative ineffectiveness of the devices tested could have been due to technical problems or a limited amount of plutonium. But now that may have changed and North Korea may even be in a position to use highly enriched uranium instead of plutonium.
The North knows that the Punggye-ri area, where the test site is located, is under intense satellite surveillance and could be intent on drawing the attention of South Korean and U.S. authorities. That is why Seoul and Washington believe the latest activity is a political gesture aimed at pushing them back to the six-party talks. But if North Korea does not get what it wants, it could actually conduct another nuclear test.
South Korea and the U.S. must not repeat the mistake of being dragged to the negotiating table by signs of a looming North Korean nuclear test. If that happens, North Korea will believe it can pressure them merely by appearing to conduct another test. Instead, they must make it clear that China shoulders the primary responsibility. Over the past few months, China and North Korea have been urging resumption of the six-party talks, but if Beijing allows the North to carry out another test, it would make nonsense of these efforts.
As the host of the six-party talks, China bears the responsibility of explaining to South Korea, the U.S. and other participants of the six-party talks just what is going on in Punggye-ri. China is the only country with the political, diplomatic and economic clout to get North Korea to halt the test. China must finally demonstrate real resolve to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. If North Korea seeks to continue its futile efforts to shift the nuclear balance of power, then South Korea and the U.S. must firmly warn Pyongyang and Beijing that they will take extraordinary measures.
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