As tensions on the Korean Peninsula ratchet up, new analysis suggests the North Korean government is “primed and ready” to conduct its sixth nuclear test — a move that would be seen as a direct threat to the safety of South Korea, Japan, and the U.S.
While the exact timing of such a test is unknown, it could happen as early as Saturday, when the country prepares to celebrate the 105th anniversary of the birth of its founder.
North Korean monitoring service 38 North, which analyzes commercial satellite imagery for changes at the country’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, believes that all the preparations have been made to conduct a nuclear test — though it points out that the decision to conduct the test can only come from leader Kim Jong Un.
“The activity during the past six weeks is suggestive of the final preparations for a test,” Joseph Bermudez, a 38 North analyst, told CNN. Analysis on the 38 North website shows how commercial satellite imagery taken on April 12 “shows continued activity around the North Portal, new activity in the main administrative area, and a few personnel around the site’s Command Center.”
Speculation that a nuclear test was in the works has grown in recent days as the country prepares to celebrate the “Day of the Sun” on April 15, the 105th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung. About 200 reporters are in Pyongyang to cover the event, including journalists from the U.S. and Japan.
Despite this chatter, officials in neighboring South Korea have played down suggestions that a nuclear test is imminent, with a spokesman for the country’s Joint Chief of Staff telling reporters: “There has been no unusual activity so far.” An official at the U.S. National Security Council told VOA: “We have no comment, but we will be watching closely.”
Another nuclear test would mark the sixth in North Korea’s history, with the first taking place over a decade ago. In recent years Kim Jong Un has ramped up these attempts, with the last — in September — the largest to date, with an estimated yield of 10 kilotons.
The possibility of a sixth nuclear test comes at a time of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula. On April 8, the U.S. government dispatched a Navy carrier strike group to the area. On Tuesday, Japan said it was planning to conduct joint drills with the U.S. carrier strike group in what is seen as a show of force to deter North Korea from launching any missiles.
North Korean state media responded by warning it would launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. at any sign of aggression — though many experts believe the country doesn’t yet possess the technology to launch such an attack.
On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said North Korea may already have the capability to deliver missiles equipped with a sarin nerve agent, adding, “The security situation around our country is getting increasingly severe.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Trump spoke about the situation in North Korea. “You cannot allow a country like that to have nuclear power, nuclear weapons. That’s mass destruction.”
However, in the same interview Trump revealed that his grasp of the political reality of the region was not as strong as he had thought. He realized it after Chinese President Xi Jinping explained the history of the China-North Korea relationship during Xi’s visit to the U.S. last week. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said. “I felt pretty strongly that [China] had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.”
On Wednesday, during a press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump spoke about his chat with Xi the previous evening. “I think he wants to help us with North Korea,” but he added that if support is not forthcoming, “we’re just going to go it alone.”
On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that “military force cannot resolve the issue,” adding, “Whoever provokes the situation, whoever continues to make trouble in this place, they will have to assume historical responsibility.”
An editorial in Chinese state-run newspaper the Global Times also called for a peaceful solution. “As soon as North Korea complies with China’s declared advice and suspends nuclear activities,” it said, “China will actively work to protect the security of a denuclearized North Korean nation and regime.”