Could North Korea be planning multiple nuclear tests?

North Korea says it plans 'higher level' test as part of its military deterrent in its confrontation with the United States. South Korea says that's code for multiple nuclear tests.

Lee Jin-man/AP
North Korea's military guard post, right bottom, in North Korea's Kaepoong is viewed from the unification observation post near the border village of Panmunjom that has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Sunday.

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South Korea’s outgoing leader said today that it was worried North Korea could detonate not one, but multiple, nuclear devices when it moves forward with its most recent threat to carry out a “higher level” nuclear test.

"North Korea is likely to carry out multiple nuclear tests at two places or more simultaneously" to maximize scientific gains from the event, said South Korea’s outgoing President Lee Myung-bak in an interview with the Choson Ilbo newspaper today, according to Agence France-Presse.

The United Nations Security Council voted last month to enact further sanctions against North Korea as a result of its December 2012 rocket launch, which went against UN agreements. The secretive nation, led by Kim Jong-un, responded to the new sanctions angrily, saying future tests would be “targeted at the United States,” and vowing to expand its nuclear program “both quantitatively and qualitatively.”

North Korea successfully tested two nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009. If carried out, this would be its third test.

The South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman told the Associated Press that "We assess that North Korea has almost finished preparations for conducting a nuclear test anytime and all that's left is North Korea making a political decision" to do so. Analysts told the BBC that satellite imagery shows a tunnel to an apparent mountainside lab may be in the process of being sealed, a vital step before a test can be carried out.

Though some, including Mr. Lee, believe North Korea’s reference to a “high-level nuclear test” is an indication the country could be planning more than one nuclear blast, others believe “high-level” may refer to the use of highly enriched uranium for the first time. North Korea’s past nuclear tests used plutonium.

The New York Times notes that the question of uranium vs. plutonium is an important one, but it is not an easy differentiation to make from a distance. The use of highly enriched uranium:

...would indicate that North Korea might be well on its way to substantially expanding its nuclear arsenal through uranium enrichment, a harder-to-detect means of making bomb fuel. That would also make the North’s nuclear program more menacing, its regime likely more recalcitrant and its neighbors more agitated, as seen in Seoul’s recent decision to extend the range of its missiles.

It is not easy to tell what type of material a detonated device was made from, reports the Times. There is a window of about 10 to 20 hours to “detect and analyze the different types of xenon gases produced in an atomic explosion” in order to discern whether it was a plutonium or atomic bomb.

Still, other North Korea observers say the importance of this potential test is that it could be a step along the path toward miniaturization of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Siegfried S. Hecker writes in Foreign Policy, “Without additional nuclear tests, North Korea is greatly limited in its ability to miniaturize a nuclear device to fit on one of its missiles.”

The 2006 and 2009 tests demonstrated that North Korea can build a nuclear device, but that its nuclear arsenal is likely limited to bulky devices that would need to be delivered by plane, boat, or van, thereby greatly limiting their deterrent value. To make its nuclear arsenal more menacing and provide the deterrent power Pyongyang's vitriolic pronouncements are aimed to achieve, North Korea must demonstrate that it can deliver the weapons on missiles at a distance.

Mr. Lee told the Choson Ilbo newspaper that it would be "difficult to persuade the North regime to give up the nuclear path." However, many in the international community point to further sanctions as the best course of action.

In an opinion for CNN, George Lopez, a former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), says one of the best remaining options in stalling North Korea’s nuclear progress is to have a “product-focused sanctions approach,” where the Security Council would deny North Korea the materials it needs to continue developing nuclear weapons.

Precise lists of dozens of the materials used in centrifuge operation that should be sanctioned are already recorded for the Council in the reports of their Panel of Experts for the DPRK. Lists of related materials have also been developed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group. To date the permanent five have sanctioned only a very few of the materials on either list. The Council also needs member states to strengthen export, customs and financial controls on dual-use items that are "below grade" of those newly sanctioned items. This will stifle the North's ability to upgrade or jerry-rig these hitherto unsanctioned items as a way of maintaining their program.

Also critical to the success of this choking of supplies would be stricter controls of the illicit financing that supports such trade. Putting strong enforcement behind the 2087 resolution's concern about DPRK cash flows, especially through its embassies, is also in order.

Another, somewhat unprecedented, sanctions option would be a Council-issued travel ban on North Korea placed on all scientists, engineers and others with specialized expertise in centrifuge technologies and uranium enrichment.

Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor who recently led a delegation to North Korea, and Mickey Bergman, senior adviser to the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, write in an opinion for the Washington Post that more than just sanctions are needed to rein in North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.

[I]t is important to recognize on our end that the lack of direct dialogue is not helping us achieve our goals. Dialogue is not an endorsement or legitimization of your counterpart’s positions. Rather, it is an exchange of arguments and ideas that help both sides better understand the other and identify opportunities. The United States takes issue with the conduct of the North Korean regime with regards to its nuclear program, proliferation and its violations of human rights. The diplomatic toolbox is robust and diverse. While sanctions are merited and are a legitimate tool, so is dialogue. The two are not mutually exclusive.

In the meantime, North Korea's state-run media distributor, Uriminzokkiri, released a short film on Saturday showing a dream sequence with a rocket launched into orbit and "an apparent missile attack" on New York, according to Fox News.  All of this was set to the 1980s hit song, "We Are the World."
Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton called the video "disturbing," however Bruce Klinger from the Heritage Foundation told Fox the "strange" and "amateurish" video was not a direct warning of an attack on the US.
“It’s very consistent with decades of North Korean propaganda,” he said. “Things will not change under Kim Jong Un."

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