North Korea has almost completed preparations for a third nuclear test, a senior source with close ties to Pyongyang and Beijing said, an act that would draw further international condemnation following a failed rocket launch.
The isolated nation sacrificed the chance of closer ties with the US when it launched a long-range rocket on April 13 and was censured by the UN Security Council, which includes the North’s only major ally, China.
Critics say the rocket launch was aimed at honing the North’s ability to develop an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of hitting the US, a move that would dramatically increase its military and diplomatic heft.
The North now appears to be about to carry out a third nuclear test after two in 2006 and 2009.
“Soon. Preparations are almost complete,” the source said when asked whether North Korea was planning to conduct a nuclear test.
This is the first time a senior official has confirmed the planned test and the source has correctly predicted events in the past, including the 2006 test days before it happened.
The rocket launch and nuclear test come as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the third member of his family rule the country, seeks to cement his grip on power.
Kim took office in December last year and has lauded the country’s military might, reaffirming his father’s “military first” policies that have stunted economic development and appear to dash slim hopes of an opening to the outside world.
Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, which have most to fear from any North Korean nuclear threat, are watching events anxiously and many observers have said that Pyongyang might have the ability to conduct its first test using highly enriched uranium.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking to reporters during a trip to Brasilia, said he had no specific information on whether North Korea would go ahead with a test.
“But I again would strongly urge them not to engage in any kind of provocation — be it nuclear testing or any other act — that would provide greater instability in a dangerous part of the world,” he said.
Defense experts say that by successfully enriching uranium, to make bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima nearly 70 years ago, the North would be able to -significantly build up stocks of weapons-grade nuclear material.
It would also allow it to more easily manufacture a nuclear warhead to mount on a long-range missile.
The source did not specify whether the test would be a third test using plutonium, of which Pyongyang has limited stocks, or whether it would use uranium.
South Korean defense sources have been quoted in domestic media as saying a launch could come within two weeks and one North Korea analyst predicted it could come as early as the North’s Army Day, which was yesterday.
Other observers have said that any date is pure speculation.
The rocket launch and the planned nuclear test have exposed the limits of China’s props up Pyongyang with investment and fuel.
“China is like a chameleon toward North Korea,” said Kim Young-soo, a professor of political science at Sogang University in Seoul. “It says it objects to North Korea’s provocative acts, but it does not participate in punishing the North.”
Reports have suggested that a Chinese company may have supplied a rocket launcher shown off at a military parade to mark this month’s centenary of the birth of North Korean founding father Kim Il-sung, something that could be in breach of UN sanctions.