North Korea Poised to Rattle Region With Nuclear Blast

North Korea’s Kim Poised to Rattle Region With Nuclear Blast
Mock North Korean missiles are set alight during a protest by activists in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, April 13, 2012. North Korea's long-range rocket failed minutes after liftoff in the biggest setback to Kim Jong Un since he succeeded his father as head of the totalitarian state four months ago. Source: Yonhap News via Bloomberg

Political pressure, a high-stakes bargaining strategy and technical challenges may push North Korea’s new leader to order the country’s third nuclear test any time now.

North Korea has been escalating its threats against South Korea and the U.S. in the past month as new leader Kim Jong Un celebrates the centennial of the birth of the country’s founder, his late grandfather Kim Il Sung.

Those celebrations and the need to bolster the younger Kim’s standing -- particularly in the aftermath of a failed April 13 rocket launch -- are two reasons that North Korea watchers such as David Albright expect the Pyongyang regime to try to conduct an underground nuclear explosion. If it does so, the North would stoke tensions with South Korea, the U.S. and the United Nations Security Council, which has forbidden the regime from conducting nuclear and missile tests.

“It could happen any day now,” said Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. His organization has posted satellite images on its website that it says show North Korea’s preparations at the Punggye-ri underground nuclear test site used twice in the past.

A nuclear test would make Kim “look more powerful and successful,” Albright said. “He needs this to keep the military feeling secure and the elites energized, and it certainly scares the South Koreans. North Korea knows that well.”

The regime risks a double failure if a nuclear test is unsuccessful. That prospect isn’t necessarily daunting, Albright said. “They can still say, ‘Look, we’re on the path to thermo-nuclear weapons,’” he said.

Admission of Failure

While South Korea sees no evidence that a nuclear test is imminent, it recently submitted a list of North Korean organizations to be included in the Security Council’s expanded sanctions, Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung Jae told reporters today in Seoul, without giving details.

North Korea is already under UN sanctions for its two past nuclear tests, and the Council censured Kim’s government after this month’s launch of a rocket that disintegrated shortly after takeoff. That debacle prompted a rare public admission of failure to the outside world and raised questions about whether Kim can secure his grip on the military and government as he confronts global condemnation and an economy that struggles to feed its own people.

Banning Garrett, director of the Asia Program and Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group, said the failed launch would feed a sense of insecurity and paranoia that provokes North Korean leaders’ often outlandish threats.

Old Technology

“It’s a half-century-old technology and they can’t even master that,” Garrett said of the missile launch. The point of Pyongyang’s posturing and its nuclear program, Garret said, is deterrence. “They feel threatened and paranoid and so they maintain this façade,” Garrett said.

Regime officials have recently threatened their neighbor to the south as well as the U.S. On April 23, a military squad threatened to “soon” turn South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and his government to “ashes in three or four minutes.” At a ceremony yesterday to mark the 80th anniversary of the country’s 1.2 million-strong military, Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho said the army has “powerful modern weapons” capable of defeating its enemies.

‘Forcefully Retaliate’

“We are able to continuously corner the U.S. and forcefully retaliate to the enemy’s provocative schemes for war,” Ri said, according to a transcript of his remarks from South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

“Cornering” the U.S. is one element in North Korea’s calculations, said Sung-Yoon Lee, an assistant professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University, outside Boston.

After North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, the administration of President George W. Bush reacted by lifting financial sanctions, beginning diplomatic talks in December 2006 and the so-called six-party talks with Russia, China, South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, in February 2007.

The U.S. also resumed food and energy aid and removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008.

“That was actually a very good move for the North Koreans,” Lee said of the test, speaking in a telephone interview. The North Koreans “painted the Bush administration into a corner, especially as it was dealing with the war in Iraq and having political problems.”

They conducted a second test in 2009, after President Barack Obama took office. “The Obama administration did not bite” then, Lee said.

Deal Collapses

In July 2011, the Obama administration began to engage North Korea and reached an agreement with Pyongyang this year. The North would halt tests of long-range missiles and nuclear devices, and the U.S. would provide food aid. That deal collapsed in the wake of the failed April 13 rocket launch, which the U.S. said amounted to a test of missile technology. The U.S. retracted the planned food aid.

That failure may provide a further impetus for North Korea to test an atomic device, Albright said. “There’s a pattern, when something doesn’t work right that’s fundamental to their view of nuclear deterrence, they can get very reactive and you see it now,” Albright said.

‘People Made Fun’

With the failed missile test, “people made fun of them, the military gets angry and starts to feel people don’t fear North Korea,” he said. “One way to deal with that is a nuclear test.”

There are also technical reasons, according to Albright and Lee. “On one level, it’s a perfectly rational act,” said Lee, who said it has been three years since Pyongyang last tested a nuclear device.

Albright’s organization estimates North Korea has six to 18 nuclear weapons with about three kilograms of plutonium in each. Efforts to create bomb designs with greater potential impact would be a factor for conducting a test.

The Pyongyang government has hinted at efforts to develop a thermo-nuclear device and may also be working on a device that wraps highly enriched uranium around a plutonium core to generate a much higher yield than its existing bombs, said Albright, a physicist and former weapons inspector.

George Lopez, a former member of the UN panel of experts for enforcing sanctions on North Korea, said he believes the North Koreans are planning a uranium test.

Key Dates

“Technically, I’m betting that this test will be a uranium test, not a plutonium test,” he said today. The technical reason to conduct the test would be to evaluate uranium enrichment quality and the detonation process, he said.

A South Korean intelligence report warned earlier this month that recent activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site is consistent with preparations for previous atomic device detonations. South Korean Deputy Defense Minister Lim Kwan Bin warned shortly after the North’s failed rocket launch that chances of a nuclear test are “very high.”

Lee said that Pyongyang has a fondness for taking provocative action on or near significant dates. The first nuclear test took place on Oct. 9, 2006, the day before the Workers’ Party Founding Day. The second test, in 2009, took place on the U.S. federal holiday of Memorial Day, which honors all Americans who have died in wars.

Lee said the third test may occur on this year’s Memorial Day, which falls on May 28.

“You’re thinking that’s too predictable, but they are predictable,” Lee said. “When American officials are enjoying a little break, or preoccupied, they like to pull officials back into the office.”

Other possible dates include June 25, the day that marks the start of the Korean War, and July 27, when the armistice ending the war was signed, Lee said.

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