North Korea on Tuesday declared it was canceling its participation in a February deal with the United States that would have required suspension of a number of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons-related efforts, the New York Times reported (see GSN, April 17).
The announcement followed the Obama administration's decision to cancel plans to send food assistance to the North in response to its Friday long-range rocket launch (see related GSN story, today). Pyongyang defended its latest actions by noting that in February negotiations for the nuclear shutdown deal, the United States pledged not to harbor "hostile intent" toward North Korea. The regime cited Washington's efforts to secure a strong U.N. Security Council condemnation of the rocket launch as proof of its insincerity.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency said it "resolutely and totally" did not accept the Security Council's rebuke on Monday of the rocket launch. The rocket, which the North said was intended to deliver a satellite into orbit, broke apart shortly after takeoff. The ministry vowed the country would maintain efforts to send satellites into space.
The United States, South Korea and other nations believe Friday's launch was a cover for a long-range ballistic missile test.
North Korea's remarks suggested the nation would proceed with widely suspected plans to detonate another nuclear device. With the cancellation of the U.S. deal, "we have thus become able to take necessary retaliatory measures," the ministry said, adding, "the U.S. will be held wholly accountable for all the ensuing consequences."
The bilateral deal obligated Washington to send 240,000 metric tons of nutritional aid to North Korea in return for its monitored shutdown of uranium enrichment and other atomic activities at the Yongbyon complex and a moratorium on new long-range missile and nuclear tests (Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, April 17).
Washington on Tuesday shot back that regardless of the end of the bilateral deal, Pyongyang was still prohibited under international law from carrying out a fresh nuclear test, Agence France-Presse reported.
"We believe that it's not just the commitments that North Korea made on Leap Day [Feb. 29], but also existing Security Council resolutions that hold North Korea to the pledge not to conduct any nuclear tests," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a press briefing (Agence France-Presse I/Spacewar.com, April 17).
Pyongyang carried out two previous nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Recent satellite photographs of the North's Punggye-ri atomic test site show what look like preparations for a new underground detonation.
Toner said it was hard to tell whether a new nuclear test was indeed in the works, CNN reported. "Frankly, its very difficult to say. Its a very opaque regime," the spokesman said.
"We parse out their public comments. We also know that in the past, as we've said, there's been this pattern of bad behavior," he continued.
An anonymous high-ranking Obama official said the precise phrasing used by Pyongyang is important.
"Those who parse Pyongyang's statements closely point out that this one threatens 'necessary retaliatory measures,' whereas in 2009 they said they would 'strengthen' its 'nuclear deterrent in every way,' and in 2006 they said they would take 'strong physical actions.' So it could be they are just beginning the process of cranking up their bellicosity," the official said (Jill Dougherty, CNN, April 17).
Experts believe a fresh nuclear test would be aimed at developing a warhead small enough to mount on a ballistic missile and would for the first time use highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium.
Korea Institute for Defense Analyses expert Baek Seung-joo said, "If it conducts a nuclear test, it will be uranium rather than plutonium because North Korea would want to use the test as a big global advertisement for its new, bigger nuclear capabilities," Reuters reported.
North Korea confirmed its long-suspected uranium enrichment program in November 2010. International monitors, ejected from the nation in 2009, have never had the chance to verify to what levels the North is enriching uranium. The nuclear material requires an enrichment level of roughly 90 percent to fuel a warhead.
The ability to enrich uranium to high levels would substantially expand North Korea's capacity to produce fissile material. The aspiring nuclear power is understood to only possess a limited amount of plutonium and it disabled several years ago a plutonium-production reactor under a now paralyzed aid-for-denuclearization process (Ju-min Park, Reuters/Yahoo!News, April 18).
China on Wednesday called for forbearance and composure following Pyongyang's announcement it was pulling out of the bilateral deal with the United States, AFP reported.
"We believe that maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula is in the interest of all parties. ... Dialogue and negotiation is the only correct way out," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said to reporters. "We hope relevant parties will exercise calm and restraint, maintain engagement and dialogue and continue to uphold the denuclearization process" (Agence France-Presse II/Straits Times, April 18).
An anonymous China specialist working in a South Korean government-affiliated think tank told the Korea Times, "Beijing's approval of the [Monday Security Council] statement is mainly due to concerns over a possible nuclear test, not to condemn the rocket launch itself" (Chung Min-uck, Korea Times, April 17).
North Korea on Tuesday declared it was canceling its participation in a February deal with the United States that would have required suspension of a number of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons-related efforts, the New York Times reported.