North Korea looked to be readying for a possible third nuclear test, perhaps a early as next March, as a US troubleshooter traveled to Pyongyang yesterday with a message for the North to “calm down.”
US and South Korean intelligence have been watching the North’s nuclear sites for any activity that analysts say could be part of efforts to gain leverage in the international talks it is seeking and secure aid to prop up its economy.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo daily yesterday cited an intelligence official from Seoul as saying a tunnel was being dug at the North’s nuclear test site that could be completed in March, possibly heralding a new nuclear test.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said it was closely monitoring the site and said there was no concrete evidence to show the North was preparing for a third nuclear test.
The amount of earth removed from the site in Punggye township indicated the tunnel was about 500m deep, half the depth needed for a nuclear test.
“North Korea is digging the ground pretty hard when it’s cold enough to freeze the ground at its two major nuclear facilities,” a South Korean intelligence official was quoted as saying.
“At this rate, [the Punggye tunnel] will reach [the] 1km that is needed for a nuclear test by March to May,” a separate intelligence source told the newspaper.
The North was also speeding up work on new construction at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, where it revealed a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility last month, the newspaper quoted intelligence sources as saying.
South Korea’s foreign ministry declined to confirm the details of the report, but said: “Nothing has been confirmed that would prove the North is preparing to conduct a nuclear test.”
The South’s nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, was in Moscow meeting with his Russian counterpart, in the same week that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun and chided him over the North’s nuclear.
The report coincided yesterday with South Korea’s largest civil defense drill in recent years. The exercise on a busy weekday brought traffic to a standstill nationwide and saw mass evacuations to bomb shelters.
South Korean Prime Minister Kim Hwang-shik said the aim was to heighten readiness for a possible North Korean air raid and he also warned the North to expect reprisals if there was another attack like the one an island near their disputed maritime border that killed four people.
“The government is ready to demonstrate that there will be due price to pay for any future aggression,” he said.
US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg was in Beijing to consult with the Chinese on North Korea and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a frequent visitor to Pyongyang as an unofficial envoy, was on his way to the North.
“My objective is to try to get North Korea to calm down a bit, see if we can reduce tension in the Korean Peninsula,” he was quoted as saying on the BBC’s Web site before departing from the US.
In related news, US Ambassador Kathleen Stephens called the Korean Peninsula’s post-World War II division a great tragedy, responding to heated criticism of the US’ role in the breakup.
The US and the Soviet Union divided the peninsula following Japan’s surrender in 1945, ending 35 years of colonial rule by Tokyo.
“The division of Korea was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, and the division of Korea happened through no fault of the Korean people,” Stephens told a meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.