North Korea announced that it is considering a “new form of nuclear test,” according to a statement in the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 30.
The KCNA did not provide any further details, but said that the new type of test would help bolster Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent. Experts speculate that this could involve testing a uranium-based device, a miniaturized device, or simultaneous nuclear explosions.
North Korea conducted nuclear tests in October 2006, May 2009, and February 2013. (See ACT, March 2013.) North Korea is thought to have four to 10 nuclear weapons that are plutonium based. Pyongyang possesses uranium-enrichment technology, but it is unclear if North Korea has developed nuclear warheads with highly enriched uranium.
In an April 27 article published on 38 North, a website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Nick Hansen and Jack Liu wrote that recent satellite images show increased activity “consistent with what would be expected during pre-test preparations,” near tunnel entrances at the Punggye-ri test site.
Hansen and Liu said that satellite images show what appears to be equipment being moved into the tunnels. The specialists conclude that these activities could indicate that the tunnel entrances have not yet been sealed. Sealing the tunnels is a “key indicator that a detonation is imminent,” they said.
Pyongyang made its announcement about the new kind of test in response to a March 27 UN Security Council statement denouncing North Korea for several firings of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in March.
The statement in the KCNA said the missile launches were part of “self-defensive military drills.” The launches included two medium-range Nodong missiles on March 26 and several dozen short-range missiles over several weeks. The Nodong missile has a range of 1,300 kilometers and is capable of hitting Japan.
The Security Council unanimously condemned North Korea’s ballistic missile launches as a violation of Security Council resolutions, Sylvie Lucas, Luxembourg’s ambassador to the United Nations and president of the council for the month of March, said March 27 after the body met at the request of the United States to discuss the matter.
In October 2006, the Security Council passed Resolution 1718, which required North Korea to suspend “all activities related” to its ballistic missile program, including missile launches.
Lucas said that the members agreed to “consult on an appropriate response” at the Security Council meeting, but did not provide details on what measure the body was considering.
Joseph DeThomas, a former U.S. nonproliferation official, said April 10 that there will be a “heavy debate” at the UN over passing additional sanctions in the coming months.
Speaking at an April 10 press event hosted by 38 North, he said that targeting leadership financing could be a “game changer” that brings North Korea back to negotiations but that the small base of U.S. knowledge regarding North Korea makes it difficult to determine who and what the target of the sanctions should be.
In March, in a report to the Security Council, a panel of experts recommended focusing on implementing existing measures rather than passing further sanctions. (See ACT, April 2014.) Together, Resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087, and 2094 prohibit arms sales and transfers of nuclear and ballistic missile technology to North Korea, ban the sale of luxury items to Pyongyang, and give states broad authority to inspect North Korean cargo suspected of violating these measures if it passes through their territories.
When asked about the panel’s recommendations, DeThomas said that implementation is a problem in countries with smaller regulatory agencies because they cannot monitor everything at ports of entry.
Another difficulty in implementing the current sanctions is that some countries take a “narrow interpretation” of the authority granted by the Security Council or are “unwilling to use the authority because of economic and strategic interests,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration dismissed reports last month that the United States was prepared to relax its preconditions for resuming negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program.
Washington has repeatedly said that North Korea must take steps to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization before negotiations resume. (See ACT, October 2013.) Pyongyang said it would abandon and dismantle its nuclear weapons program as part of an agreement in 2005 in return for possible future assistance on a peaceful nuclear energy program. That agreement collapsed in 2009, and North Korea has since taken steps to build up its nuclear arsenal, including restarting a reactor that produces plutonium that is particularly suitable for weapons. (See ACT, September 2013.)
In an April 11 press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that “nothing has changed” regarding the U.S. position on preconditions for the talks and that the “approach remains the same.”
The reports that Washington would relax its preconditions followed an April 7 trilateral meeting in Washington among Glyn Davies, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, and his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
Washington has negotiated bilaterally with North Korea in the past but also together with China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea as part of the so-called six-party talks.
Those talks began in 2003 with the goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. The multilateral negotiations were held intermittently until North Korea announced in April 2009 that it would no longer participate.
Davies also met with his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei, in New York on April 14-15 and in Washington on April 18. In addition to hosting the six-party talks, China has the strongest ties to North Korea of the parties involved in the negotiations.
Last June, Davies said Washington’s current strategy for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program involves coordinating with partner countries in the region so that they speak with “one voice” before negotiating with Pyongyang on denuclearization. (See ACT, July/August 2013.)
In an April 15 statement, the State Department said that the United States and China “agree on the fundamental importance of a denuclearized North Korea” and that the countries will continue to work together peacefully to achieve this goal.
After the April 18 meeting, Wu said that Washington and Beijing have “narrowed the differences” regarding the resumption of the six-party talks and the North Korean situation.