Why is North Korea threatening to conduct a nuclear test? (+video)
First, to make up for the embarrassment of the failed missile; second, the regime's past nuclear tests didn't go very well.
Seoul, South Korea
North Korea today signaled its determination to go through with a third nuclear test in the face of warnings from friends and foes alike.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Inside North Korea: more circus than bread
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Today on the 80th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean armed forces, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho said North Korea now had mobile weapons that were strong enough to strike targets in the US.
That boast appeared to refer to North Korea’s development of long-range missiles that should theoretically be able to deliver a nuclear warhead as far as the US West Coast. Mr. Ri indicated the North’s intention to miniaturize nuclear devices in order to fit them on the missile by claiming that the North could deal a devastating defeat in “a single blow.”
The North Korean rhetorical blast, as reported by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, is the latest in a flood of invective, most of it directed against South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak and his government. The rhetoric leaves little doubt for most analysts that North Korea sees the test as needed to compensate for the humiliation suffered on April 13 when its vaunted long-range rocket broke up and plunged into the Yellow Sea 90 seconds after it was launched.
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North Korea also has more practical military and political reasons for wanting to conduct the test in defiance of diplomatic efforts to persuade its new leader, Kim Jong-un, to call off the project.
“There’s a military imperative,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Mr. Fitzpatrick says the North’s first two underground nuclear tests, in October 2006 and again in May 2009, “did not go very well.”
Although North Korea did manage to explode nuclear devices on both occasions, they were so small as to have been viewed by scientists elsewhere as a possible failure.
What North Korea wants
North Korea’s top priority now is to be able to miniaturize a warhead in order to send it to a target on a missile rather than drop it as a bomb from a plane. “They want to get something small enough to fit on a Rodong,” says Mr. Fitzpatrick, at a conference here staged by the Asan Institute, a local think tank financed by the Hyundai business empire.
Yet another issue is the need to convince the North Korean people that Kim Jong-un is a strong leader, capable of controlling a military establishment with 1.2 million troops while solidifying his power over the country.
“Having failed on the missile, they’ve got to do something that goes boom,” says Fitzpatrick.
The decibel level of the North Korean rhetoric is beginning to raise alarm here among analysts who fear the North may challenge South Korea with incidents to which the South will have to respond militarily.