Pyongyang: North Korea conducted its first nuclear test exactly 10 years ago Sunday, exploding a crude atomic bomb and crossing what had long been considered a “red line.”
A decade of condemnation, sanctions and ostracism later, the regime in Pyongyang has not pulled back.
Today, the country has a demonstrated nuclear weapons program, has made clear progress with missiles and is widely assumed to be able to put the two together. The only real question now is whether North Korea can deliver a nuclear-tipped missile to a target, and that is not much of a question. If it cannot yet, it will soon, analysts say.
North Korea is “racing towards the nuclear finish line,” as Van Jackson, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, a Pentagon think tank in Hawaii, puts it. The next demonstration of leader Kim Jong Un’s intent could come as soon as Monday.
Oct. 10 is the anniversary of the establishment of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party – an event celebrated with fanfare – and Pyongyang likes to time its provocations. Last month’s nuclear test was carried out on North Korea’s Foundation Day.
As a bonus, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will be taking to the stage for their second debate on Monday morning Korea time.
Preparations for another test could be underway. The latest commercial satellite imagery shows activity at all three tunnels leading into the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, analyst Jack Liu wrote Thursday on 38 North, a website devoted to North Korea. Even if North Korea lets Monday pass, there still may be fireworks before the year is out.
“That would make perfect sense in the warped logic of North Korea,” said Andrew Shearer, a former Australian national security adviser now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Hong Yong-pyo, South Korea’s unification minister, told a parliamentary hearing two weeks ago that he expected another provocation – whether a nuclear test or another long-range-missile launch – before the end of this year.
North Korea has been pursuing nuclear weapons for decades, ramping up efforts after the collapse of its benefactor, the Soviet Union, in 1989 and the end of the Cold War. But Kim Jong Il, the second-generation leader who ruled North Korea between 1994 and 2011, appeared to restrain the program because of Chinese pressure. That is not the case with his son.
Kim Jong Un has ordered 49 missile tests in the almost five years since he took over, including 21 this year alone. He has also presided over three nuclear tests, two of them in 2016.
By contrast, North Korea conducted only 26 missile tests and two nuclear tests in the 18 years that Kim Jong Il was leader.
“With the ballistic missile tests one after the other, they seem to be under tremendous pressure to advance their program,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank that focuses on nuclear weapons.