DeM Banter: and then there’s D.P.R.K. ….hummmmm
New York Times
January 25, 2013
WASHINGTON — A blunt and explicit threat on Thursday from North Korea that its weapons programs would “target” the United States, and that it would proceed with a third and “higher-level” nuclear test, poses a stark challenge to the Obama administration at a time when it hoped to focus its major diplomatic effort on restraining Iran’s less-advanced nuclear program.
A new nuclear test in defiance of the United Nations would be the first under the North’s new and untested leader, Kim Jong-un, and the clearest indicator yet that he is following his autocratic father’s path, pushing ahead with a nuclear weapons program that analysts say is increasingly sophisticated.
The statement from the North Korean National Defense Commission was a response to the United Nations Security Council’s approval this week of a resolution condemning the North’s most successful rocket launching to date and tightening sanctions — a resolution that China, the North’s biggest ally, voted to approve.
The North’s threats were considerably more specific than past warnings and came just as American intelligence agencies expressed concern that the country may have made considerable progress in its nuclear and missile programs despite longstanding sanctions.
The North stated clearly, rather than implying, that its nuclear program would now be aimed at the United States — something suggested in the past, for instance, by propaganda posters showing a missile striking what looks like Capitol Hill.
The statement also explicitly ruled out any talks over “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, which has been the objective of both on-again-off-again international talks with Pyongyang for two decades and an agreement the North signed with South Korea 21 years ago.
“We do not hide that a variety of satellites and long-range rockets which will be launched by the D.P.R.K. one after another and a nuclear test of higher level will target against the U.S., the sworn enemy of the Korean people,” the statement said, using the abbreviation for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
But it also repeated past wording that the nuclear program was meant as deterrence.
Assessing North Korea’s real intentions is always difficult, and it may prove that the statement, issued by the country’s highest military body, was another outburst by an insecure, starving country seeking to shake down the West for more aid, a cycle President Obama had vowed to break. Pyongyang’s public declarations often heat up at times when the United States is focusing its attention elsewhere.
Still, the statement comes at a time when American officials were already expressing renewed concerns about the North’s intentions. Intelligence officials have concluded that the recent long-range rocket test was successful, and reached as far as the Philippines before propelling a washing-machine-size satellite into orbit. It later tumbled, but the launching suggested a capability to toss a warhead much farther than before.
American intelligence officials said recently that, at best, the North’s missiles could hit Hawaii, and that it would be at least three years, maybe more, before that range could be extended to the continental United States.
American intelligence officials have also become concerned that the latest rocket test indicated that the country’s new leader might have decided that confrontation with the West could prove a more successful strategy to retaining power than a new attempt at difficult economic reforms.
There had been hopes that Mr. Kim — who is reported to have made modest economic changes and is portrayed as more affable than his father — might be willing to compromise with the West for economic aid. Thursday’s threat was the latest suggestion that he was more likely to follow the pattern that his father, Kim Jong-il, established when he ran the country: a cycle of a rocket launching, United Nations condemnation and nuclear testing.
“It’s a major test for Kim Jong-un,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Unlike the rocket launching in December, which the North has said was conducted because it was his father’s dying wish, a nuclear test will be Kim Jong-un’s decision, one for which he will be held responsible.”
The North appears to be making preparations for a possible nuclear test at the Punggye test site in northeastern North Korea, near the Chinese border. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters on Thursday that the North Koreans “have the capability, frankly, to conduct these tests in a way that makes it very difficult to determine whether or not they are doing it.”
Because the tests are underground, activity that American spy satellites see at the test site is not a reliable predictor of when a test will take place. At times over the past decade North Korea has feigned preparations, but it has exploded a device only twice: an attempt in 2006 that was later judged a fizzle, and a more successful test a few months after Mr. Obama came to office four years ago. That test turned the Obama administration hawkish on North Korea and wary of pursuing any deep engagement with the country.
The White House responded to the North Korean declaration Thursday by declaring it “needlessly provocative.” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters that “further provocations would only increase Pyongyang’s isolation,” a variant of the line the White House has used every time the North has issued a threat, launched a missile or revealed a new nuclear facility.
But deeper isolation does not appear to be the young Mr. Kim’s greatest fear. So far, China, which supplies the North’s energy and some of its food, has not cut off aid in response to North Korean actions even though its leaders have urged Mr. Kim and his father to refrain from provocations. Chinese officials have made clear in meetings with their American counterparts that they fear instability in North Korea more than they worry about the country advancing its longstanding nuclear and missile capabilities.
“If you look back over the past four years,” a former administration official said recently, “we haven’t moved the Chinese at all.”
It is hard to know what North Korea meant by the references in its statement that its next nuclear test would be of a different nature. It could indicate that the country will attempt to show that it can manufacture a warhead small enough to fit on a missile, though that technology of miniaturization is extremely difficult.
It could also mean that it plans its first test of a uranium weapon, created from a new uranium-enrichment program that it showed two years ago to a visiting American scientist. The North’s previous two tests used plutonium, harvested from a now-closed nuclear reactor. Uranium enrichment gives the North another pathway to expand its arsenal; American intelligence officials have said they believe the North has enough plutonium for roughly 6 to 10 weapons.
The North Korean threat will now almost surely be inherited by Senator John Kerry, Mr. Obama’s nominee to be secretary of state. Mr. Kerry had earlier been critical of the Bush administration’s handling of the North, saying its focus on the Iraq war diverted attention from more dangerous threats.
If approved as secretary, he will have to deal with the question of whether the Obama administration, by focusing on Iran and refusing to reward the North for its periodic threats, tantrums and tests, has made a similar error. While there have been periodic efforts to restart talks with North Korea, they have failed; the most recent one fell apart about a year ago.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Choe Sang-hun from Seoul, South Korea.