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Warning that North Korea could be carrying out a new nuclear test

If the country goes ahead with the test, it could be a ‘game changer’, South Korea’s foreign minister has warned

South Koreans watch a television broadcasting a video image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
South Koreans watch a television broadcasting a video image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Image: AP/Press Association Images

NORTH KOREA COULD well be preparing to carry out a fourth nuclear test, South Korea said today, 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,” defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok told a press briefing.

Kim stressed that North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme was at a stage where it could conduct a test “at any moment” once the order was given by the leadership in Pyongyang.

Previous tests

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests – in 2006, 2009 and 2013 – all at the Punggye-ri site in the northeast of the country.

Kim declined to give details of the monitored activity, but cautioned that it may be no more than a “deception tactic” to raise tensions ahead of Obama’s visit which is due to begin on Friday.

We are thinking of possibilities that the North may stage a surprise nuclear test or just pretend to stage a nuclear test.

Obama is visiting Seoul as part of an Asia tour, and there has been widespread speculation that the North may stage a provocation to coincide with the trip.

Kim said the South Korean and US militaries were closely sharing intelligence and Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff had set up a special task force in case Pyongyang goes ahead with an underground detonation.

Yesterday, 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 sceptical that North Korea would carry out a test at the current time, and said Pyongyang was just seeking to rattle a few cages.

Satellite images

In a March 21 post based on recent satellite images of Punggye-ri, the closely-followed 38 North website of the Johns Hopkins University’s US-Korea Institute said there were no indicators of a new test being conducted “in the next few months.”

The North warned at the end of March that it would not rule out a “new form” of nuclear test after the UN Security Council condemned its latest series of medium-range missile launches.

South Korea Koreas Tensions Anti-North Korean protesters and North Korean defectors shout slogans during an anti-North Korea rally in downtown Seoul Source: Lee Jin-man

Experts saw this as a possible reference to testing a uranium-based device or a miniaturised warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.

Fourth test a ‘game-changer’

“If North Korea goes ahead with another nuclear test as it has publicly warned, it will be a game changer,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se said.

Warning Pyongyang that it was playing an “unwinnable game” against the international community, Yun said the world would not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Last year, the North restarted a plutonium reactor that it had shut down at its Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2007 under an aid-for-disarmament accord.

The Yongbyon reactor is capable of producing six kilograms (13 pounds) of plutonium a year – enough for one nuclear bomb

Pyongyang is currently believed to have enough plutonium for as many as six bombs, after using part of its stock for at least two of its three atomic tests to date.

It is still unclear whether the 2013 test used plutonium or uranium as its fissile material.

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