Last week, we predicted that it might be some time before North Korea attempted another nuclear test, citing evidence that Pyongyang's 9 October blast was only partially successful. Coming on the heels of July's TD-2 missile failure, we surmised that Kim Jong-il might want to get the technology right before trying another underground nuclear test, particuarly if he has plans to sell nuclear know-how (or actual weapons) to other rogue states.
The senior U.S. commander in Korea, General B.B. Bell, weighed in on the topic earlier today, suggesting that future nuclear tests are likely, as North Korea attempts to improve and expand its arsenal. General Bell did not offer specific intelligence that indicates another test is imminent, although there has been speculation that Pyongyang might stage another test over the short term. That speculation has been based--at least in part--on continuing activity at sites believed associated with the North Korean nuclear program, although such indicators are hardly conclusive.
Barring more definitive proof of a pending nuclear test, we'll stick by our original prediction. With other countries having a vested interest in the outcome of Kim Jong-il's nuclear program, he can hardly afford another failure, or a test that is only marginally successful, like the blast that occurred on 9 October.
Likewise, we'll avoid reading too much into South Korean media accounts regarding the most recent DPRK missile tests. According to those reports, North Korea test fired five short-range air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles last week, with ranges of 6 to 30 miles. That activity sounds like an air defense exercise, which are held on a regular basis in the North. Pyongyang has several air defense missiles that fit within that range, most notably the "SA-2" Guideline, which forms the backbone of the DPRK's air defense system. Unfortunately for the DPRK, the SA-2 is old, and poses little threat to high performance U.S. or ROK aircraft.
In the air-to-air arena, the most likely candidates for last week's launches are the AA-7 APEX (carried by the MiG-23 FLOGGER) or the AA-10 ALAMO, mounted on North Korea's single squadron of MiG-29 FULCRUMs. Both missiles have been in Pyongyang's arsenal for more than a decade, so a training or test launch would not be a surprise.
Additionally, DPRK fighter tactics and missile training are rather crude (at least by U.S. standards), but it would be interesting to learn how this exercise compares with previous fall air defense drills. If this exercise was earlier and/or more robust that previous drills, it might suggest a busier Winter Training Cycle (WTC), which begins in late November, and is a reliable indicator of current North Korean military capabilities. On the other hand, if last week's training was within seasonal norms, it was probably nothing more than a routine air defense exercise, and does not indicate any increase in North Korean readiness, or potential preparations to attack the south.