North Korea said it isn’t planning to test a nuclear weapon “at present,” releasing the denial on the day a U.S. envoy arrived in South Korea to discuss tensions on the Korean peninsula.
South Korea “seeks to rattle the nerves of the DPRK in a bid to cause it to conduct a nuclear test, though such a thing is not under plan at present,” an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement carried June 9 by the official Korean Central News Agency. DPRK refers to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
South Korea has no comment to make on the KCNA statement, the Unification Ministry’s spokesman, Kim Hyung Suk, said yesterday. North Korea needs to “show its sincerity through dialogue and positive actions, not provocations,” he said.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan have expressed concern that new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may conduct a nuclear test to reassert himself after he lost a U.S. food aid deal for carrying out an unsuccessful firing of a long-range rocket on April 13. Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, who led the food aid negotiations, arrived in Seoul June 9 for a seven-day visit to meet South Korea’s top officials on security and the North Korean nuclear program.
North Korea first denied planning an atomic weapon test on May 23, though satellite photos have since indicated preparation activities at sites for a rocket launch and a nuclear test.
While the U.S. State Department welcomes the North Korean statement as a sign of understanding, it isn’t considering resuming food aid, Darragh Paradiso, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in a written statement.
“We want to assist the North Korean people, including by providing nutritional assistance, but we cannot do so when we no longer have confidence that the DPRK will follow through on its implementation commitments to ensure that nutritional assistance reaches those in need,” Paradiso said.
The February agreement would have provided 240,000 metric tons of food to the impoverished nation suffering from the worst drought in decades, in exchange for the suspension of missile and nuclear tests.
With raised expectations for a nuclear test since the U.S. canceled the food deal, North Korea may now be calculating that any announcement of plans for a test would no longer be a useful bargaining chip for economic concessions, said David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
“They might be trying to lull the international community into thinking they’re not going to conduct a test until the expectations die down,” Maxwell said in an interview.
An April 9 South Korean intelligence report cited satellite photographs of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site near North Korea’s border with Russia and China, showing excavation consistent with preparations for an underground atomic device detonation.
Construction began last summer and is in its early stages for a new launch pad for firing larger rockets at the Musudan-ri base in the country’s northeast, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington said on its website, citing satellite images taken April 29.
Joongang Ilbo’s website was hacked June 9 and police investigations aren’t excluding the possibility of North Korean involvement, the South Korean newspaper reported yesterday, citing police. Last week, North Korea’s military threatened to attack with “strategic rockets” seven South Korean media outlets, including Joongang, for their “vicious smear campaign” against Kim Jong Un.
Kim’s regime often issues threats of war, including the April 26 statement that a special action squad will turn South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and his government to “ashes.”
North Korea’s latest statement may be aimed at influencing South Korea’s presidential election in December, said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Any plan for a nuclear test now would weaken the chance of South Koreans electing a progressive candidate who might seek closer ties to North Korea, he said.
“That’s a political calculation they may be making,” Pollack said in an interview.
“There’s been a very hedged quality in what North Korea has been saying for a while now,” Pollack said. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to preclude a test.”
With North Korea saying it has no plans “at present” to conduct a test, Pollack said of the new statement, “There’s wiggle room in it of a significant sort.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Sangwon Yoon in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org; David Lerman in Washington at email@example.com
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