North Korea on Sunday announced it would continue its space research and nuclear development programs, directly dismissing a call by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members last week for Pyongyang to refrain from actions that would bring further instability to the region, the Yonhap News Agency reported (see GSN, May 4).
In a joint statement, the five nuclear powers of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States specifically called on Pyongyang to abstain from carrying out a new nuclear test -- an action the isolated country is widely seen to be preparing. North Korea detonated atomic devices in 2006 and 2009.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry dismissed the statement as "a grave illegal action of violating the sovereignty of the D.P.R.K. and its right to use space and nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, pursuant to the U.S. hostile policy toward the D.P.R.K."
Countries that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are guaranteed the right to atomic energy but Pyongyang withdrew from the pact in 2003. The North is also forbidden by the Security Council from using ballistic missile technology to launch any object, including long-range space rockets.
"The D.P.R.K., depending on its nuclear deterrence for self-defense, will firmly protect its sovereignty and dynamically push forward the development of space for peaceful purposes and the industry of nuclear energy and proudly build a thriving nation," the ministry proclaimed (Yonhap News Agency/Korea Times, May 6).
Were the North to conduct a third nuclear device, issue experts believe it would likely be fueled by highly enriched uranium rather than the plutonium used in its two previous atomic tests.
Writing in a commentary for the Korea Times, Kookmin University researcher Andrei Lankov noted "at this stage, we cannot be certain which materials the North might use. If they test another plutonium device, it could be seen merely as a provocative waste of valuable resources. The test would amount to a waste of 5 kilograms of precious plutonium, which is not in abundant supply and no longer produced locally."
North Korea is understood to only possess enough plutonium to build roughly six warheads; the country disabled its plutonium-producing reactor some years ago under a now abandoned denuclearization process. Pyongyang revealed in 2010 it had secretly established a uranium enrichment program. However, international weapon monitors have not been allowed into the country to verify to what levels the uranium is being processed. Uranium requires an enrichment level of around 90 percent to fuel a warhead.
"The political effect of a uranium test would be rather different. The implications of such a test are that the North is now able to produce uranium in sufficient quantities to make nuclear devices. Uranium being so much easier to make secretly, this will produce a far more negative international reaction," Lankov wrote.
"This is exactly what the North Korean leadership wants. Like the nuclear and missile program in general, the test is designed to achieve two strategic objectives. First, it should demonstrate North Korea’s nuclear capability, in order to deter hostile powers. Second, it should provide a serious incentive to foreign powers to negotiate with the North about dismantling and/or freezing the program in exchange for a large fee," he continued (Andrei Lankov, Korea Times, May 6).
Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea on Monday began a 12-day bilateral air force exercise involving some 60 aircraft and hundreds of military personnel, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
The Max Thunder exercise will include targeted air strike practices and mid-air refueling drills (Xinhua News Agency, May 7).
Elsewhere, Beijing is rumored to have discussed with Pyongyang hosting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a visit sometime in 2012, the Straits Times reported (Straits Times, May 7).
North Korea on Sunday announced it would continue its space research and nuclear development programs, directly dismissing a call by the five permanent U.N. Security Council members last week for Pyongyang to refrain from actions that would bring further instability to the region, the Yonhap News Agency reported.