“Important measures” planned by North Korea may not refer to a third nuclear test, said North Korean propaganda outlet Tongil Shinbo Friday. A commentary posted by the source via Uriminzokkiri said Washington “had jumped to conclusions” about the third nuclear test.
Adding to confusion about the timing of a third nuclear test, the editorial explained, “The United States and other adversarial forces have jumped to the conclusion that a third nuclear test will be conducted and have begun calling for not only strong sanctions, but also have touched upon the need for a first strike”.
Unlike statements issued by the North Korean Foreign Ministry via state media outlet KCNA, Uriminzokkiri is not known to often transmit important decisions made by the Pyongyang government. However, the editorial was the first public sign that North Korea may in fact be leaning towards not testing a third nuclear device, though it did add that important state measures were “aimed at safeguarding national interest, not at threatening anyone.”
The latest development builds on analysis posted Friday at NK NEWS that also suggested a third test might not be as imminent as observers originally expected. Citing the current absence of a Foreign Ministry warning of an imminent test (something that took place prior to the last two tests), Chad O’Carroll said it appeared unlikely that North Korea would go ahead with a third nuclear test in the coming days.
But while the latest pronouncement by North Korea is likely welcome news for South Korea and the U.S., Pyongyang’s recent track record suggests that the possibility of deliberate disinformation cannot be discounted. In the run-up to the December satellite launch KCNA announced that the launch window was to be extended amid reports of ongoing technical problems. Then with observers seemingly put off guard by the announcement, North Korea surprised the world by launching the rocket just two days later.
With China having been increasingly vocal in urging North Korea not to test in recent days it remains possible that Beijing has suceeded in persuading Pyongyang to cancel its plan. Responding to the developments, China-North Korea expert Dr. Adam Cathcart today told NK NEWS,
If China has managed to convince North Korea not to test, you have to wonder how that plays to the home audience, since North Koreans tend to be rather skeptical of Chinese intentions and not generally acclimatized to seeing their leadership doing what Beijing asks it to do.
We don’t know what levers the Chinese leaders put to work, but they have a nice table full of bad options ranging from the mildly threatening (like stopping the development of the Special Economic Zones, sending back North Korean workers in China, giving less help at the UN) to the extreme (cutting off food and fuel, opening the border to refugees, and re-opening territorial and sea disputes).
But if North Korea ignores China and does decide to test, many analysts believe it will be this week because it coincides with a number of important events and holidays in both the U.S. and North Korea. On Tuesday, President Obama will give the State of the Union, on Saturday North Korea will celebrate Kim Jong Il’s birthday, while next Monday is also President’s Day in the U.S. Most of North Korea’s previous nuclear and missile tests have taken place around important holidays or events in the U.S. and North Korea.
Another sign that North Korea could conduct a third test this week relates to the noticeable lack of public field inspection visits conducted by Kim Jong Un. Since January 19, when he inspected the Taesongsan General Hospital, Kim Jong Un has only made security and leadership appearances: one meeting with state security and foreign affairs officials, three related to the Fourth Conference of Party Cell Secretaries, and one at an enlarged meeting of the Central Military Commission. Kim was similarly hard to find before the launch of the Unha-3 rocket in December, with a gap of nearly two weeks between public appearances.
If fears of a third test realize in the coming days or weeks, tensions will dramatically increase on the peninsula and it is likely that the UN Security Council will respond with more tightening of sanctions.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests in the past, in 2006 and 2009, but has given no time-frame for its third test.
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