News reports suggest North Korea may be trying to reprise the provocations of 2009 and conduct a nuclear test after firing a long-range missile. The North conducted its second nuclear test on May 25, 2009 shortly after it was slapped with UN sanctions over the launch of a long-range missile on April 5 that year.
◆ 2009 Redux
Now intelligence officials apparently worry that the regime could do the same thing again. The North announced on March 16 that it would launch what it claims is a space rocket on any clear day between April 12 and 16. All members of the six-party nuclear talks have called on Pyongyang to scrap the launch. U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who attended the Nuclear Security Summit last month, urged the North to pay more attention to the wellbeing of its people than a missile launch.
A high-ranking government official here said the whole thing was calculated. "North Korea is staging preparations for a nuclear test at the Punggye-ri test site, which is under surveillance by U.S. spy satellites, in case the international community responds with sanctions" to what is widely believed to be a balletic missile test.
◆ Strengthening Regime's Grip on Power
Experts say the regime is pushing ahead with the tests to bolster new leader Kim Jong-un's rule. "Kim Jong-un is seeking to celebrate North Korea's emergence as a 'powerful and prosperous' with the long-range missile launch and nuclear test to try and consolidate the legitimacy of his rule," said Paik Hak-soon at the Sejong Institute. "At the same time, North Korea is also warning the U.S. not to break its Feb. 29 agreement with Pyongyang," which pledged food aid if the North halts nuclear weapons and long-range missile development.
The North Korean regime has conducted nuclear tests every time things do not go its way. Pyongyang forced Washington to scrap financial sanctions by conducting its first nuclear test in October 2006, while clamping down on internal unrest triggered by former leader Kim Jong-il's poor health back in 2009 with a second nuclear test in May that year.
The device the North is about to test is likely to be more powerful than the 4,000-ton bomb detonated in 2009. A military official here said, "If it's determined, North Korea can get ready for a nuclear test in just two weeks. Unlike the first and second tests, which involved plutonium, there is a good chance that the next test will involve highly enriched uranium."
◆ Pressuring Washington for More Food Aid
Other experts believe North Korea is using the threat of another nuclear test as a ploy to gain more food aid. Baek Seung-joo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said, "It's clear that North Korea is preparing for a nuclear test, but it's unclear whether it will actually conduct the test or use it simply as leverage for further talks. The aim is to pressure the U.S."
And Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies said, "North Korea is making visible preparations for a third nuclear test to tell Washington it wants to hold nuclear arms reduction talks as a fully fledged nuclear state." But Yang added it is unlikely the North has enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb.