Kim Jong-un’s finger may be on the nuclear button, but is he politically ready to press it?
But first, some interesting developments in the past few days – North Korea’s Foreign Ministry released a statement on March 22 via their state-run media KCNA:
1. North Korea says it will not test a nuclear device… for now:
“From the beginning, we did not envisage such a military measure as a nuclear test as we planned to launch a scientific and technical satellite for peaceful purposes.”
2. But this statement is conditional, followed by a threat:
“If the U.S. persists in its moves to ratchet up sanctions and pressure upon us despite our peace-loving efforts, we will be left with no option but to take counter-measures for self-defense.”
This statement sets the stage and provides an excuse later for laying blame on the U.S. in the event the regime does test a nuclear device.
3. North Korea says it notified Washington about their restraint “several weeks ago”:
“Several weeks ago, we informed the U.S. side of the fact that we are restraining ourselves in real actions though we are no longer bound to the February 29 DPRK-U.S. agreement, taking the concerns voiced by the U.S. into consideration for the purpose of ensuring the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula necessary for focusing every effort on the peaceful development.”
Here, “taking the concerns voiced by the U.S.” appears to suggest a nuclear test. It’s unclear when, where, and how Pyongyang “notified Washington” but some possibilities include during discussions via their New York channel or a reported top-secret day trip by a senior US official to Pyongyang on April 7, one week before their rocket launch, scooped by South Korean media ResetKBS (Korean language).
4. North Korea will continue to strengthen its nuclear deterrence, which usually means an upcoming nuclear test or, in this case, it could mean continuing uranium enrichment activities:
“We had access to nuclear deterrence for self-defence because of the hostile policy of the U.S. to stifle the DPRK by force and we will expand and bolster it nonstop as long as this hostile policy goes on.”
It appears Pyongyang is taking a two-pronged approach, as we’ve seen before, of being nuclear ready while signaling a willingness to continue dialogue. The latest statement coincides with satellite images revealing activities at its nuclear test site, Punggye-ri – this indicates that the North is technically ready or near ready to test but it is unclear whether Kim Jong-un has made a political decision to do so any time soon.
It is safe to assume the North will conduct a third nuclear test at some point but it’s a matter of time and circumstance.
The April rocket launch was the direct order of the late Kim Jong-il that could not be overruled by Kim Jong-un. It is unclear whether Kim Jong-il’s dying orders included a nuclear test.
Why the temporary self-restraint? It’s difficult to know for sure, but there have been some senior-level contacts between China and North Korea and it appears they may be preparing for a visit by Kim Jong-un to China. Against this backdrop, it is unlikely the North will conduct a nuclear test any time soon. Some other contributing factors could be discussions via the New York Channel or during the top-secret trip. The Obama administration would likely want to avoid a North Korean nuclear test during an election year.
However, it is important to remember that provocations are an integral part of North Korean tactics. The same formula and behavioral pattern have repeated themselves many times before, but even if the North refrains from a nuclear test in the immediate future, it is a matter of time and circumstance until the regime conducts a nuclear test. History has shown that the North may not unleash provocations while it is engaged in dialogue, but still ends up doing so when it is unhappy during talks.