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North Korea Seen Preparing For Possible Third Nuclear Test

(Feb. 22) -A South Korean soldier in November patrols a section of barbed-wire fence near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas. Digging at a North Korean nuclear test site indicates Pyongyang might be planning a third atomic blast, a South Korean official said (Jung Yeon-je/Getty Images). (Feb. 22) -A South Korean soldier in November patrols a section of barbed-wire fence near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas. Digging at a North Korean nuclear test site indicates Pyongyang might be planning a third atomic blast, a South Korean official said (Jung Yeon-je/Getty Images).

North Korea is excavating new tunnels at the site where it previously carried out two nuclear test detonations, raising concerns that a third blast could be in the works, Reuters reported on Sunday (see GSN, Feb. 18).

An anonymous South Korean official told the Yonhap News Agency that North Korea was digging multiple tunnels prior to choosing which one to use for another nuclear test.

"South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities have spotted North Korea building several other underground mines at Punggyeri where it had run two nuclear tests," the government source said. "It is judged to be clear evidence of preparing for a third nuclear test."

The aspiring nuclear power carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 (Kim/Laurence, Reuters , Feb. 21).

"It's unclear whether the North will conduct a plutonium-fueled nuclear test or uranium-fueled one," one source told the Korea Times. "But it's likely to opt for the plutonium-based program as it has already revealed the existence of a modern uranium enrichment facility and expects strong opposition from China."

The Stalinist state in November unveiled an advanced uranium enrichment plant, which could give the regime a second route to producing nuclear-weapon material. Pyongyang was also reported last week to have finished construction of a second facility that could be used to fire ballistic missiles (see GSN, Feb. 18; Kim Young-jin, Korea Times, Feb. 20).

A third nuclear test would be another major provocation by the North, which is widely suspected of sinking a South Korean naval vessel last March and then shelled the South's Yeonpyeong Island in November. The incidents killed 50 South Koreans.

An effort to improve bilateral military relations failed this month when North Korean officers abruptly abandoned preliminary working-level talks aimed at setting the stage for a minister-level meeting.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday called for new dialogue with the North, saying that 2011 was an "appropriate time" for Pyongyang to alter its trajectory, Reuters reported.

"I would like to give North Korea the message that we are always open (to talks) and (it has) a good chance this year," the president said.

Further provocative actions from North Korea could occur if relations with the South do not improve. Pyongyang could carry out new missile launches, test another nuclear device or launch additional strikes against South Korean targets, according to experts.

The North has called for a renewal of the six-nation talks aimed at its permanent denuclearization. Pyongyang abandoned the talks, which include China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, in April 2009. Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, however, have said they would not return to negotiations until they are assured of North Korea's intention to shutter its nuclear weapons program (Kim/Laurence, Reuters, Feb. 21).

Meanwhile, an unidentified South Korean official said the North's defense chief wrote to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January, raising the specter of a "nuclear catastrophe" on the Korean Peninsula and calling for bilateral meetings with the United States, Yonhap reported.

North Korean Defense Minister Kim Young Chun emphasized the appropriateness of U.S.-North Korean talks, the South Korean official was said to have told a gathering of foreign diplomats in Seoul. Kim's letter to Gates demonstrates the North Korea nuclear impasse is approaching a "climax," the official reportedly said.

"After all, the next step will be either one of two things, whether it will come to dialogue or stage provocations, and I think North Korea is standing at such a crossroads," he was quoted as saying.

The Obama administration has refused repeated requests from Pyongyang for direct talks, urging instead multinational meetings and North-South dialogue (Yonhap News Agency I, Feb. 21).

Elsewhere, the U.N. Security Council is not expected this week to take up a new report on North Korea's uranium enrichment work, Yonhap reported.

The report was produced by a panel of exports and submitted to the special U.N. committee in charge of monitoring implementation of sanctions against the North. The experts reportedly concluded that Pyongyang's uranium enrichment work is more extensive and goes back years further than regime officials have claimed.

With veto-wielding China blocking council consideration of the document, "it won't be easy for the Security Council to adopt the report," a South Korean official said.

Beijing remains Pyongyang's leading ally. It does not want to see U.N. debate over North Korea's proclaimed uranium enrichment program out of fear the issue would exacerbate tensions, according to Yonhap. The Chinese government wants the matter discussed instead within the six-nation aid-for-denuclearization framework.

South Korea's representative to the six-party talks, Wi Sung-lac, is expected to discuss the North's uranium sector when he meets with Obama officials in Washington beginning on Thursday, a separate Foreign Ministry source said (Yonhap News Agency II, Feb. 22).

China's No. 2 representative to the six-nation negotiations, Yang Houlan, and Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun were in North Korea this week in what could be an indication that Beijing is ratcheting up its campaign to relaunch the nuclear negotiations, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.

A South Korean official said Zhang met with North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan for discussions on Pyongyang's nuclear work and inter-Korean relations, Yonhap reported. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is scheduled to travel to South Korea tomorrow for two days of meetings that are likely to focus heavily on the North Korean nuclear impasse (Associated Press/Real Clear Politics, Feb. 20).

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