According to ABC News, North Korea has completed preparations for a second nuclear test, although defense and intelligence officials are divided over when the test might actually occur.
A senior defense official told ABC's Jonathan Karl that Pyongyang "has put everything in place to conduct the test without any notice or warning." The official said that preparations recently observed in North Korea are similar to those detected before last October's underground blast, which Pyongyang described as its first nuclear test. U.S. analysis confirmed that the explosion was a nuclear event, but the blast was described as a partial failure, producing far less explosive power that originally expected.
While preparations for a second test appear complete, intelligence analysts are divided over a timeline for that event. If required preparations have been completed, the test could occur within days, but some intelligence officials predict that the blast won't occur for two or three months. That would allow Pyongyang to use the "threat" of a nuclear test to win concessions in the Six Party talks, which it abandoned (again) in late December.
Shortly after the October blast, we opined that North Korea's next nuclear test might be years away, since Kim Jong-il had suffered two major embarrassment in a relatively short time; last fall's fizzled nuclear test came only three months after a North Korean TD-2 missile broke apart shortly after lift-off, indicating that Pyongyang's ICBM program still has significant hurdles to overcome. Given the importance of those programs to North Korea's economy and security efforts, we postulated that Kim Jong-il would wait until his engineers "get everything right" before conducting more nuclear and missile tests.
But desperate times require desperate measures, and that's a big reason the DPRK is preparing for another underground test. A year of military bluster and posturing resulted in new sanctions against the North, supported by its friends in the region, China and Russia. U.S.-led efforts to crack-down on Pyongyang's counterfeiting activities (and other illegal financial transactions) also produced positive results, reducing the flow of money to Kim Jong-il's regime. And, making matters worse for the North Korean dictator, the first signs of internal dissent and disconent have begun to emerge. Thousands of DPRK refugees have risked imprisonment--or even death--in an effort to flee their homeland. China recently began building a new fence along its border with North Korea, in an effort to stem the flow of refugees fleeing "The Worker's Paradise."
Kim Jong-il's reaction to all of this has been utterly predictable. After his latest round of weaponry stunts in 2006, he meekly agreed to return to the Six Party process. When the talks resume in Beijing last month, his delegates submitted their usual list of demands, then walked out when the U.S. and South Korea failed to comply. The implied nuclear test is probably nothing more than North Korea's latest attempt to win concessions, and steer the talks in its favor.
But even if the next test is a technical success, it will still backfire, politically and diplomatically. Pyongyang's last round of weaponry stunts only strengthened Washington's alliance with Seoul and Tokyo; earned condemnation from its erstwhile allies in Beijing and Moscow, and even convinced the normally-timid U.N. to impose tougher sanctions. Common sense would dictate that North Korea adopt a less-confrontational approach, but rationality has rarely carried the day in Pyongyang. The real question is how far Kim Jong-il is willing to press his luck, especially after the next nuclear test provokes more outrage--and harsher sanctions from the international community.
As for the U.S., the Bush Administration should remain committed to the Six Party process, while affirming our intent to protect friends and allies in the region. Critics charge that Mr. Bush has increased the danger on the Korean Peninsula, but in reality, he's done the world a major service by, highlighting the growing North Korean menace; exposing the 1994 "Agreed To" framework for the sham it was; improving regional alliances (and missile defense capabilities) and persuading the world community to take a serious look at Pyongyang and its sinister activities. The only shame is that we didn't implement this approach ten years ago.
ALTERNATE THEORIES: While North Korea's implied threat of another nuclear test is almost certainly linked to the recent break-down in the Six Party Talks, other, alternate theories cannot be discounted. Alternate Theory #1: North Korea's first nuclear test was deliberately designed as a very small-scale affair; having demonstrated their technology on that level, DPRK scientists (using a building-block approach) are now ready to attempt a larger blast. Alternate Theory #2: Pyongyang has corrected the technical glitches that hampered the first test, and is now ready to demonstrate its capabilities as a "fully-functioning" member of the nuclear club. Alternate Theory #3: Other nations (read: Iran) are heavily invested in the DPRK nuclear program, and need North Korea to perfect its nuclear technology to aid their own developmental efforts.