In both 2006 and 2009, North Korea followed long-range missile tests with detonations of nuclear devices. In the middle of last month, the North launched a “rocket” supposedly carrying an earth-observation satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-3.
Last week, a South Korean “senior government official” told Yonhap News Agency that the North is “technically ready” to test a nuclear weapon. So will Pyongyang continue its pattern and detonate a device soon?
At the moment, the North is making a big show of cooperation. The Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang informed the United States in recent weeks that it is “refraining” from provocative actions and has no plans to conduct a nuclear test. The North, according to an unnamed spokesman, is even open to negotiations on its atomic arsenal.
China, Japan, and South Korea this month demanded that North Korea stop provocations, and the US appears to have been involved in extraordinary diplomacy in this regard. According to reports, not denied by the State Department, two American officials traveled to Pyongyang for meetings on April 7th. Their “secret mission” was supposedly to head off the launch that ultimately took place on the 13th of that month. Observers, therefore, have judged the dialogue a failure.
Was it? At the time, the Obama administration surely wanted to stop the launch—thought to be a cover for the test of a missile. Yet the White House may have assumed that the North was going to test no matter what, especially because the launch was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. If Washington were operating under that assumption, the trip could have been an attempt to stop a nuclear detonation following the lift off of the rocket.
It seems that the White House is doing all it can to salvage the so-called Leap Day Deal, a bilateral agreement between Washington and Pyongyang involving moratoriums on long-range missile and nuclear activities. The May 24th edition of the Nelson Report, the Washington insider alert, even refers to the possibility of a second secret mission. Early this month, the North Koreans apparently used informal channels to tell the Obama administration that they wanted to continue talking. Perhaps the delay in the test is designed to get aid from Washington.
It would seem, however, that the North Koreans might conduct a nuclear test sometime this year. For one thing, the regime needs to make up for the April launch, a humiliating failure.
Moreover, North Korea is thought to be selling its nuclear technology to Iran. If that is the case, a third nuclear test could be a helpful demonstration for the North’s Tehran customers. Speculation is that the next test might be of a uranium device, which could be of special significance because Iran is enriching uranium.
There is another factor as well. Kim Jong Un might think that a test will intimidate the South Korean electorate into voting for a “progressive” candidate in this December’s presidential election. The young dictator surely wants a progressive to win, so that Seoul will resume desperately needed aid, which conservative President Lee Myung-bak has cut off during his term.
If there is a test, expect it to be timed to hurt the ruling conservative Saenuri Party, which looks like it just might win at the end of the year—absent any disruptive provocations from Pyongyang.