North Korea appears on the verge of conducting its sixth test of a nuclear device.
There were two nuclear tests last year and three in total during the rule of Kim Jong Un, who came to power in December 2011.
Recent satellite images show virtually no activity at the North Portal of Punggye-ri test site, in the northeastern corner of the country. Earlier, the activity there was “extensive.” And, as CNN has reported, that sequence is similar to the “pattern of activity just before previous tests, indicating all final preparations are now complete.”
Commercial satellite imagery supports that conclusion. The widely followed 38 North site, maintained by the US-Korea Institute of John Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies, reports that images taken on Saturday suggest that technicians have laid communication cables. Moreover, images show pumps are taking water from the tunnel where a nuclear device is thought to be positioned for the test. The pumps are necessary to keep dry both cables, used to trigger a detonation and collect data, and monitoring equipment.
South Korean and US officials believe a test will occur soon. “It is assessed that North Korea is ready to carry out a nuclear test anytime if its leadership decides to do so,” said Lee Duk-haeng, spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, on Friday.
The US Air Force has moved a WC-135 Constant Phoenix “sniffer” plane to Japan while Russia has flown an Antonov An-30R craft from its St. Petersburg base.
So when will Mr. Kim detonate the nuclear device?
Korea watchers believe the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea times tests for maximum political effect. Those timing considerations can, we often forget, be driven by internal as well as external considerations.
Indeed, there does seem to be turmoil in Pyongyang. Beginning in late January and up to the middle of last month, a series of troubling incidents occurred: the minister of state security, General Kim Won Hong, was demoted; five of General Kim’s subordinates were executed by antiaircraft fire; the head of the country’s strategic missile forces was notably missing at the February 12 launch of an intermediate-range missile; and Kim Jong Nam, Kim’s elder half-brother, was murdered in a bustling airport when the chemical nerve agent VX was smeared over his face by two females working for the Kim regime. A successful test of a nuclear device now would tend to reinforce Kim’s standing internally, especially within the leadership of the Korean People’s Army.
And then there are external considerations that could account for the timing of a detonation. Kim, like his father before him, obviously enjoys reminding the civilized world that he can be a menace at the push of a button. He certainly seemed to relish the moment last month, on the 12th, when he launched an intermediate-range missile while President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe golfed and dined at Mar-a-Lago. It was Kim’s first test of a ballistic missile this year.
There is another Mar-a-Lago event that could be made-to-order from Mr. Kim’s perspective: the much-anticipated first meeting of Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. The gathering is rumored for April 6 to 7.
But one wonders if the timing of a detonation doesn’t also suit China’s purposes. Certainly, Beijing has noticed that it benefits when Kim misbehaves, given the course of events that inevitably repeats itself after Pyongyang conducts a nuclear test or does something especially provocative. Indeed, the resulting diplomatic frenzy distracts Washington from other issues—like China’s aggressive moves in its peripheral waters, its cyberattacks on American institutions, and its predatory trade practices. No one in Washington raises human rights abuses when the West “needs” China.
When China is needed, Beijing’s stature and influence rises. And, in due course, American presidents dispatch their secretary of state or some high-ranking envoy to Beijing to seek its assistance. In turn, Beijing uses its leverage to extract promises, concessions, or silence from the US. In effect then, North Korea’s belligerence, saber rattling, and provocations manufacture bargaining chips for China. It is inconceivable that Beijing is unaware that this tidy pattern of cause and effect suits its purposes nicely. Indeed, one must ask if Beijing isn’t in fact orchestrating the pattern.
So if Kim Jong Un decides to push the button on or before the end of the Mar-a-Lago get-together, Xi Jinping may condemn the test in public but secretly smile.