S. Korean gov’t and US institute with different analyses on N. Korean nuke test

Posted on : 2014-04-24 11:38 KST Modified on : 2014-04-24 11:38 KST
Differing assessments of N. Korea’s activities make Seoul’s disclosure of intelligence seem premature

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer and Park Hyun, Washington correspondent

The South Korean government and a US research institute are offering different analyses on the possibility of a fourth North Korean nuclear test.


The South Korean Ministry of National Defense has concluded that recent activities at the test site in Punggye Village means another test is “imminent,” while the US website 38 North, which specializes in North Korea-related issues, said the North was most likely either engaged in repair or maintenance or in only the earliest stages of preparation for a test.

The differences suggest Seoul could be playing up the nuclear angle as a way of drawing the public’s attention away from criticisms of the bungled response to the sinking of the Sewol ferry last week.

In a piece published on Apr. 22, 38 North said that while increased vehicle and equipment activity was detected near the Punggye site, a nuclear test “may be possible but appears unlikely.” 38 North is a site operated by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the US.

The 38 North piece offered a very different analysis of the situation from Ministry of National Defense spokesman Kim Min-seok, who told reporters at a briefing the day before that preparations were “at a stage where North Korea could conduct a surprise nuclear test at any moment once the decision is made.”

A Ministry of National Defense official confirmed on Apr. 23 on condition of anonymity that preparations for a nuclear test were “effectively complete,” a position the source said was “held by both South Korean and US intelligence authorities.”

Referring to commercial satellite images of the site, the 38 North article states, “In the six-week period from early March 2014 until April 19, imagery shows an increase in activities at the Main Support Area.”

“In particular, there appears to be movement of crates, boxes and materials near the entrances, possibly into the tunnels,” it continues, adding that “vehicles are likely coming and going.”

But the piece also notes, “Recent operations at Punggye-ri have not reached the high level of intensity - in terms of vehicle, personnel and equipment movement -- that occurred in the weeks prior to past detonations. Moreover, other possible indicators present before the North Korean nuclear tests in 2009 and 2013, such as communications vans and a satellite dish intended to transmit pre-test data, have not been spotted.”

“Activities at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site could represent an early stage of preparations for a test or may be intended for a less provocative purpose, such as conducting maintenance after a long winter,” the piece concluded.

A Ministry of National Defense official defended the conclusion of South Korean authorities.

“Military satellites have a high resolution that allows them to identify objects of 15 cm or larger on the ground, while commercial satellites have resolutions of 60 to 70 cm or lower,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“We also have other means of gathering intelligence,” the official added.

The government’s decision to announce an “imminent nuclear test” at an official briefing was itself unusual. Indeed, no governments outside of South Korea have made any kind of official confirmation. In the US, White House spokesperson Jay Carney only said authorities were “keeping in mind the possibility,” while State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said they were “watching the Korean Peninsula closely.”

Also unprecedented was Seoul’s decision to cite unofficial intelligence, with a Ministry of National Defense spokesperson mentioning in an official briefing the day before that “many in North Korea are talking about ‘preparations for a major strike.’” In the past, the Ministry of National Defense has consistently refused to offer confirmation on intelligence issues.

With the administration maintaining a “quiet response” policy on North Korean activities as recently as Apr. 21, questions are now being raised about the reasons for the sudden decision on Apr. 22 to disclose intelligence.

On Apr. 23, President Park Geun-hye phoned her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to ask China to dissuade North Korea from carrying out a nuclear test.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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