SEOUL — Reports that North Korea is ready for further nuclear tests just a few days after its fifth detonation have raised concerns that the country will ramp up its provocations, spurring South Korea and its allies to keep a closer eye on the country.
North Korea can test additional nuclear devices at any time via tunnels at the Punggye-ri test site, South Korea’s defense ministry said Monday. Some experts say North Korea has the technology to make an atomic warhead small enough to fit onto a short-range Scud missile or a medium-range Rodong missile capable of reaching Japan. Pyongyang will likely keep carrying out nuclear tests and missile launches to gather data as it works toward its ultimate objective of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
A representative of North Korea’s foreign ministry said the country will continue to qualitatively and quantitatively strengthen its nuclear capabilities, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Sunday. North Korea’s atomic development is intended to protect the country from the growing threat of nuclear war posed by the U.S., the representative said.
North Korea claimed in April that it successfully conducted a ground test of an ICBM engine, fueling speculation that the next step will involve a missile test launch. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has warned of the possibility of a cyberattack, or a surprise provocations on the demilitarized zone between the two countries or near a maritime border.
Park raised the dangers of war on the Korean Peninsula in a meeting with leaders of ruling and opposition parties Monday. North Korean provocations could also take the form of terrorist attacks or local actions, she said.
The timing of Pyongyang’s next move is a matter of much interest. The fifth nuclear test was at 9:00 a.m. local time on Sept. 9, the 68th anniversary of the country’s founding. Assuming the detonation was intended partially as a show of strength for domestic audiences, a likely date for Pyongyang’s next provocation is Oct. 10. This marks the 71st anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party, as well as the start of the next round of military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea.
The South Korean military has proposed countermeasures to the National Assembly. It plans to set up the “Kill Chain” pre-emptive strike system and the Korea Air and Missile Defense System by the early 2020s. The military has also developed a plan for a direct strike against North Korea’s leadership if Pyongyang shows signs of launching a nuclear attack.
Seoul will also cooperate more closely with Tokyo and Washington. The U.S. will dispatch B-1B bombers to South Korea on Tuesday that can reach the Korean Peninsula from Guam in just two hours or so, as well as fly at lower altitudes than the older B-52. These planes can destroy strategic targets or carry a nuclear weapon. The American military is also expected to send the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, from the Yokosuka naval base in Japan for next month’s drills.
As for Japan, a representative of South Korea’s defense ministry acknowledged at a news conference Monday the need for a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo. Public understanding is a must, the representative said.