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Two days after the United Nations condemned North Korea with further sanctions for its December rocket launch, the secretive country vowed to respond with a nuclear weapons test aimed at its “enemy,” the United States.
The United Nations Security Council – including North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trading partner, China – voted unanimously on Tuesday to strengthen sanctions against North Korea for its Dec. 12 long-range rocket launch, which violated previous agreements with the UN.
When the launch took place last month, North Korea stated its intentions were entirely peaceful, and that it was exercising its “right to use space” for peaceful purposes.
Today, however, North Korea’s tune seemed to change. "We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are targeted at the United States," North Korea's National Defense Commission said, Reuters reports, citing the state news agency KCNA.
The commission described the UN Security Council as “a marionette of the US,” and said the Security Council “should apologize for its crime of seriously encroaching upon the independence of a sovereign state ... and repeal all the unreasonable 'resolutions' at once.”
If North Korea were to carry out a nuclear test “of a higher level,” as noted today, it would be the country’s third. Its previous tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009, “both times just weeks after being punished with UN sanctions for launching long-range rockets,” according to Fox News.
But this time, some international observers believe North Korea’s technological ability to conduct nuclear testing has advanced. Bloomberg reports the country has “enough weaponized plutonium for four to eight basic nuclear weapons,” according to estimates by the Stanford University nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who visited North Korea’s atomic facilities, including one for atomic uranium-enrichment, in 2010.
The Associated Press reports that North Korea may be aiming to use "a device made from highly enriched uranium, which is easier to miniaturize than the plutonium bombs it tested in 2006 and 2009,” according to Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. Further tests are necessary before North Korea can create an atomic weapon small enough to launch as a warhead attached to a long-range missile, according to the Associated Press.
Leader Kim Jong-un may be trying to bolster his legitimacy at home and on the world stage by continuing his father’s “military first” policies.
“North Korea has unfortunately resorted to their classic play of brinkmanship,” Huh Moon-young, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, told Bloomberg. “In this totalitarian regime, the dictatorship is maintained not through winning the hearts of the impoverished public with money, but with consolidation through a show of military might.”
International response to North Korea’s threat today was quick, according to the Telegraph. The US special envoy to North Korea, Glyn Davies, urged the country and Mr. Kim not to move forward with the test, calling it a potential “mistake and a missed opportunity.”
The transition team for the incoming South Korean government, due to be sworn in on Friday, has also appealed to Pyongyang not to take any steps that would aggravate tensions in the region, while Japan is to launch a new spy satellite on Sunday with the express task of monitoring missile and nuclear tests in North Korea.
China, North Korea's sole significant ally, even [came] down against Pyongyang's intransigence, with Xi Jinping, the next president, telling a visiting delegation of politicians from South Korea that he opposes the regime developing nuclear arms or any weapons of mass destruction.
Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman added: "All relevant parties should refrain from action that might escalate the situation in the region."
The New York Times notes that North Korea’s threat “marked the boldest challenge its new, untested leader, Kim Jong-un, has posed at both his country’s longtime foe, the United States, and its last remaining major ally, China, and rattled governments in Northeast Asia that are undergoing sensitive transitions of power.”
Some believe the nuclear test could occur as soon as February, reports Reuters, in order to coincide with neighboring South Korea’s President-elect Park Geun-hye taking power on Feb. 25. Another possibility is timing the test with the birthday celebration of Mr. Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-il, on Feb. 16.
“North Korea can conduct a nuclear test as soon as its leadership makes up its mind,” Army Col. Wi Yong-seob, deputy spokesman of the Defense Ministry of South Korea, told The New York Times today.
An editorial in the UAE’s Khaleej Times notes that recent rising international tensions “have again dimmed the possibility of an amicable resolution to the cold war on the Korean Peninsula.”
The right way to deal with North Korea is by engaging the country’s leadership in dialogue. Kim Jong-un, just like his father, wants to use his country’s nuclear programme to get concessions from the international community and ensure his regime’s survival, amid a hostile environment. Neither sanctions nor threats will be effective in containing North Korea’s nuclear programme. So it’s about time that the international community revives the stalled six-nation talks to deal with the issue of the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearisation.
But North Korea seems to be rebuffing diplomatic channels or the revival of six-nation talks. "Settling accounts with the US needs to be done with force, not with words, as it regards jungle law as the rule of its survival," the Democratic People's Republic of Korea said in today’s statement.
Reuters notes that the US may not be the only target of North Korea’s ire. "North Korea will have felt betrayed by China for agreeing to the latest UN resolution and they might be targeting [China] as well [with this statement]," said Lee Seung-yeol, senior research fellow at Ewha Institute of Unification Studies in Seoul.
But not everyone is taken aback by North Korea’s move today. “Over the years they’ve said the same thing again and again,” Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group told Time. “People say North Koreans are very unpredictable or whatever, but this is very predictable.”