North Korea could well be preparing to carry out a fourth nuclear test, South Korea said yesterday, citing increased activity at its main test site just days ahead of a visit to Seoul by US President Barack Obama.
“Our military is currently detecting a lot of activity in and around the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site,” South Korean Ministry of Defense spokesman Kim Min-seok told a press briefing.
Kim stressed that the North’s nuclear weapons program was at a stage where it could conduct a test “at any moment” once the order was given by Pyongyang.
North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and last year at the site.
Kim declined to give details of the monitored activity, but said it may be no more than a “deception tactic” to raise tensions ahead of Obama’s visit tomorrow.
“We are thinking of possibilities that the North may stage a surprise nuclear test or just pretend to stage a nuclear test,” Kim said.
The spokesman said the South Korean and US militaries were closely sharing intelligence and that Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff had set up a special task force in case Pyongyang goes ahead with an underground detonation.
“We plan to thoroughly prepare for a fourth nuclear test or any other form of provocation,” Kim said.
On Monday, Pyongyang slammed Obama’s upcoming trip as a “dangerous” move that would escalate military tension and bring the “dark clouds of a nuclear arms race” over the Korean Peninsula.
Several analysts said they were skeptical that North Korea would carry out a test right now and said Pyongyang was just seeking to rattle a few cages.
Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said a test now would risk permanently alienating the North’s only major ally and chief economic benefactor, China.
“It would be a huge slap in the face for China and North Korea may not feel confident enough to deal with the backlash from Beijing,” Yang said.
A nuclear test would extinguish any chance of a resumption of six-country talks on North Korea’s nuclear program that China has been pushing for.