What's North Korea's next move? Perhaps a nuclear weapons test.

North Korea appears poised to display its nuclear weapons capability with an underground test, say experts, in a bid to keep military tensions high and force a return to talks.

A banner which reads "Hurrah, General Kim Jong Ill, the son of the 21st century's sun!" is hung in the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong.

North Korea appears more likely now to stage another long-range missile test or underground nuclear explosion rather than attacking South Korean targets, according to security experts in South Korea.

"They’re not going to do anything immediately,” says Lee Jong-min, dean of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies, “but I’m fairly convinced they’ll conduct another nuclear test maybe early next year.”

In crises stretching back to nuclear negotiations in the early 1990s, North Korea has put the Korean Peninsula into crisis mode before eventually coming to the table. While the US, South Korea, and Japan say they oppose a return to six-party talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008, another nuclear test or additional missile strikes – on the heels of the North's recent attacks – might be the North's way of forcing new negotiations.

“I don’t think there’s anything stopping North Korea now from going ahead with another nuclear test,” says Mingi Hyun, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy. Neither South Korea nor the US, he says, “have given North Korea any reason to hold off” despite military exercises on land and sea since the deadly Nov. 23 North Korean attack on a South Korean island.

An influential South Korean think tank, the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS), came out with a report Friday suggesting “a possibility of North Korea carrying out its third nuclear test” for at least two reasons.

IFANS says the North wants “to seek improvement in its nuclear weapons production capability” and “keep military tension high” while promoting the status of leader Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as the North’s next leader.

Analysts have been forecasting a nuclear test next spring ever since American physicist Siegfried Hecker led a delegation to North Korea in October and toured a uranium-enrichment facility at the North’s nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang.

The facility represents a major step beyond North Korea’s ongoing program for manufacturing nuclear devices with plutonium at their core. In October 2006 and again in May 2009, the North exploded plutonium devices underground, making it the world’s ninth nuclear weapons state.

The North has yet to test a device made of highly enriched uranium, but is believed to be well on the way to acquiring the ability and the resources to do so. Intelligence analysts have said North Korea is working on its uranium enrichment program at several sites in addition to the one Mr. Hecker visited.

China may have dissuaded North Korea from responding to South Korean military exercises with another attack. Beijing has never condemned North Korea for either the Nov. 23 attack or the sinking in March of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors, but has repeatedly called for “stability” on the Korean Peninsula.

One key reason for the North to hold off is that China’s President Hu Jintao is going to Washington in late January for a summit with President Obama. North Korea is bound to be a major topic.

“Everything will be summed up in Washington,” says Paik Hak-soon, a senior fellow and North Korean analyst at the Sejong Institute. “It will not be difficult for both countries to agree on the need to keep the Korean Peninsula and East Asia more stable. They will have to deal with the fundamental cause of instability.”

With those talks in mind, says Mr. Paik, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il would not want to risk making China, the North’s only real ally and the source of most of its food and fuel, “lose face.”

Moreover, he says, North Korea would like to return to six-party talks at which both its nuclear program and the topic of a peace treaty replacing the Korean War armistice would be on the agenda. North Korea, he says, has “gotten what it wants by these incidents” and can now argue forcefully for “a peace mechanism.”

Paik says that the Obama-Hu summit may bring about a change in the US policy of adamantly opposing a return to six-party talks. The position of both the US and South Korea is that North Korea must first take substantive steps to live up to 2007 agreements to abandon its entire nuclear program in return for a huge infusion of US aid.

Mr. Hyun at the maritime institute agrees that North Korea accomplished basic aims in its attacks. South Korea and the US, while staging large exercises, have not actually responded by attacking the North in return."

"You need the political will to use military force," he says, “but the [South Korean] government lacks the will.” In the meantime, he adds, “the issue has to be between North and South Korea directly” and not in multilateral talks.

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