North Korea has told its key ally, China, that it is prepared to stage one or even two more nuclear tests this year to try to force the US into diplomatic talks, a source with direct knowledge of the message said.
Further tests could be accompanied by another rocket launch this year, said the source, who has direct access to top levels of government in both Beijing and Pyongyang.
North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on Tuesday, drawing global condemnation and a stern warning from the US that it was a provocation.
“It’s all ready. A fourth and fifth nuclear test and a rocket launch could be conducted soon, possibly this year,” the source said, adding that the fourth nuclear test would be much larger than the third, at an equivalent of 10 kilotonnes of trinitrotoluene (TNT).
The tests will happen unless Washington holds talks with North Korea and abandons its policy of what Pyongyang sees as attempts at regime change, the source said.
North Korea reiterated its long-standing desire for the US to sign a final peace agreement with it and establish diplomatic relations, he added.
In Washington, US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland urged North Korea to “refrain from additional provocative actions that would violate its international obligations” under UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit nuclear and missile tests.
The Pentagon called North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs “a threat to US national security and to international peace and security.”
“The US remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and steadfast in our defense commitments to allies in the region,” Pentagon spokesperson Major Catherine Wilkinson said.
Initial estimates of this week’s test from South Korea’s military put its yield at between 6 kilotonnes and 7 kilotonnes of TNT.
This latest test prompted warnings from Washington and others that more sanctions would be imposed on the nation. The UN Security Council has just tightened sanctions on Pyongyang after its long-range rocket launch in December last year.
Pyongyang is banned under UN sanctions from developing missile or nuclear technology after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.
North Korea worked to ready its nuclear test site, about 100km from its border with China, throughout last year, according to satellite imagery.
The images show that it may have already prepared for one more test, beyond Tuesday’s subterranean explosion.
US President Barack Obama pledged after this week’s nuclear test “to lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats” and diplomats at the UN Security Council have already started discussing potential new sanctions.
North Korea has said the test was a reaction to “US hostility” following its December rocket launch.
“[North] Korea is not afraid of [further] sanctions,” the source said. “It is confident agricultural and economic reforms will boost grain harvests this year, reducing its food reliance on China.”
North Korea has few links with the outside world other than China, its major trading partner and sole influential diplomatic ally.
China signed up for international sanctions against North Korea after the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests and for a UN Security Council resolution passed last month to condemn the latest rocket launch. However, Beijing has stopped short of abandoning all support for Pyongyang.
Sanctions have so far not discouraged North Korea from pursuing its nuclear ambitions.
The source with ties to Beijing and Pyongyang said that China would again support UN sanctions.
North Korea’s actions were a distraction for China’s leadership, which was concerned that the escalations could inflame public opinion in China and hasten military build-ups in the region, he said, adding that he saw little room for compromise under North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, who appears to have followed his father, Kim Jong-il, in the “military first” strategy that has pushed North Korea closer to a workable nuclear missile at the expense of economic development.