Rocket Failure Raises Likelihood of New North Korean Nuke Test, Experts Say

A North Korean man on Friday walks past propaganda art in the capital city of Pyongyang. Observers said the North's failed rocket flight leaves the regime more likely to conduct a new nuclear test (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan).
A North Korean man on Friday walks past propaganda art in the capital city of Pyongyang. Observers said the North's failed rocket flight leaves the regime more likely to conduct a new nuclear test (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan).

North Korea is significantly more likely to detonate a third nuclear device as a means of bolstering its reputation for military power in the wake of a humiliating dud of a rocket flight on Friday, according to Reuters (see GSN, April 11).

A South Korean intelligence report circulated to media organizations this week said satellite pictures taken earlier this month reveal a growing mound of dirt at the North's Punggye-ri atomic test site next to what appears to be a new tunnel that could be used in another subterranean atomic explosion.

A high-ranking South Korean defense official testified to lawmakers that "the possibility of an additional long-range rocket or a nuclear test, as well as a military provocation to strengthen internal solidarity is very high."

Ahead of the rocket firing, Pyongyang had boasted that successfully placing an Earth-observation satellite into orbit would demonstrate North Korea's progress and technological superiority. The event was also planned to honor the centennial anniversary of the birth of regime founder Kim Il Sung. A favorable rocket launch would likely have been used to strengthen the standing of new leader Kim Jong Un, who assumed power in December following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il (see GSN, April 12).

The rocket, though, broke up over the Yellow Sea shortly after takeoff.

"There is no question that the failed launch turns speculation toward the ramifications for the leadership in Pyongyang; a fireworks display gone bad on the biggest day of the year," said the Council on Foreign Relations' Scott Snyder.

The regime's propaganda arm made the rare move in publicly admitting it had not been able to place the satellite into orbit. Though previous launches also ended badly,  North Korea either celebrated those efforts as successes or did not admit publicly to their failures (see related GSN story, today).

"It would have been unthinkable for them to admit this kind of failure in the past, something that could be seen as an international humiliation," Korea Institute of Defense Analyses expert Baek Seung-joo said. "The decision to have come out with the admission had to come from Kim Jong Un" (Duncan/Park, Reuters, April 13).

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin on Friday also said there is a chance Pyongyang could detonate its third atomic device, Kyodo News reported.

"I believe it's possible for North Korea (to conduct a nuclear test) because North Korea has made preparations for a long time," the defense chief  told lawmakers.

The North conducted its second nuclear test in May 2009, the month after what was widely seen as a largely failed trial launch of a long-range ballistic missile.

Nuclear specialists previously said a third test would likely be aimed at advancing Pyongyang's ability to develop warheads small enough to mount on ballistic missiles -- a key requirement for the wielding of a credible strategic deterrent (Kyodo News, April 13).

Peterson Institute for International Economics analyst Marcus Noland in an online post wrote, "It would be easy to gloat, but paradoxically, the missile failure may have actually increased the danger the world faces," the Australian Associated Press reported.

"Before the launch, it was probable that North Korea would conduct a third nuclear test; now it is a virtual certainty," he said.

"It seems likely that such a test will move forward at the earliest moment," Noland wrote from Washington.

 Pyongyang can be expected to continue with preparations for a uranium-based atomic detonation, Lowy Institute international security program director Rory Medcalf said. "I will not say definitively that we are going to see a nuclear test or some other provocation but I think the chances are higher today than they were yesterday."

The aspiring nuclear power's two previous tests in 2006 and 2009 involved plutonium-based devices.

If the powerful North Korean armed forces are calling for a new atomic blast, "they will have their way," predicted University of Sydney international security expert Jingdong Yuan.

North Korea's desire to prove its military might with a new test could be cooled by worries of a less-than-stellar outcome that could compound the humiliation of the rocket explosion, he said (Australian Associated Press/Herald Sun, April 13).

April 13, 2012
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North Korea is significantly more likely to detonate a third nuclear device as a means of bolstering its reputation for military power in the wake of a humiliating dud of a rocket flight on Friday, according to Reuters.

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