North Korea Seen Readying Nuclear, Missile Tests

North Korea seems ready to conduct a new atomic test whenever it wishes and is preparing another missile launch, a Seoul official said on Monday.

"These things [the nuclear test and the missile launch] depend on the decision by the North Korean leadership," South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told parliament, according to a Yonhap News Agency report. "As seen in the past, the long-range missile test and the nuclear test are connected to each other."

Pyongyang carried out its last underground nuclear explosion one year ago at Punggye-ri. Satellite images taken in the last year have shown signs of digging work around potential new tunnels that could host another test. However, there are no indications that another atomic trial will be carried out in the near-future, Kim said.

The specialist website "38 North," which monitors North Korea's strategic facilities, last week announced that construction appeared almost done on a big new launch tower at Dongchang-ri that could be used for further space-rocket firings. These are widely seen as a cover for long-range ballistic missile tests.

Meanwhile, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won on Monday said Pyongyang appears politically stable, at least for now, Yonhap separately reported.

Since the surprise December purge and execution of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, there have been concerns in Washington and Seoul about instability inside the North. Were there to be an abrupt regime collapse, it could weaken security around North Korea's nuclear, missile and other unconventional weapon programs.

"I don't see signs of sudden changes in the North such as a regime collapse, though there exist factors to be worried about in political, economic and social terms," Chung told South Korean lawmakers.

Separately, the U.N. Command on the Korean Peninsula has informed North Korea that annual U.S.-South Korea armed forces exercises will be taking place from Feb. 24 until April 18, Reuters reported on Sunday.

For weeks, Pyongyang demanded that the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle drills be canceled. During last year's joint exercises, the North -- upset about the involvement of U.S. nuclear-capable bombers in the drills -- threatened to carry out nuclear-missile attacks on the South and United States. The saber rattling by the Kim regime went so far as deploying intermediate-range ballistic missiles on its eastern coast and priming them for launching.

Elsewhere, the Panama Canal Authority on Saturday allowed the owners of a North Korean freighter to assume custody of the ship after paying a nearly $700,000 fine, Reuters separately reported.

The Chong Chon Gang was seized last summer as it attempted to sail through the Panama Canal. A search of the vessel's hold revealed a large shipment of conventional Cuban weaponry. Havana insisted the arms were being sent to North Korea solely for repairs and were then to be shipped back to Cuba. A U.N. Security Council special committee with authority over North Korean sanctions is investigating the incident.

February 10, 2014

North Korea seems ready to conduct a new atomic test whenever it wishes and is preparing another missile launch, a Seoul official said on Monday.