North Korea Could Be Moving Closer to Another Nuclear Test

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has convened a political conference where he’s expected to review state affairs, including a COVID-19 outbreak, and possibly address relations with Washington and Seoul amid his revived nuclear brinkmanship.

The plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee began Wednesday in the capital, Pyongyang, the official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday, and may last several days.

According to signs, North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test explosion within the next five years. This would increase a provocation streak of weapon demonstrations this year which includes multiple tests and launches of intercontinental missiles.

KCNA published photos of the meeting’s participants walking into a party building and said they approved of the agenda that would be discussed, which wasn’t specified.

State media previously said the meeting would review state affairs and make decisions on a “series of important issues.” The meeting is likely to address the country’s COVID-19 outbreak. According to the World Health Organization, Wednesday’s officials said that the epidemic was getting worse and asked for more information.

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According to experts and South Korean officials, Kim might address US relations and South Korea’s rival South Korea in long-stalled diplomacy.

During the party’s previous plenary meeting in December, Kim repeated his vow to boost his military nuclear program and order the production of more powerful and sophisticated weapons systems during discussions that lasted a record five days.

On Wednesday, the U.S. deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman met in Seoul with counterparts from South Korea (Japan) and Japan to discuss North Korean security issues. She warned a “swift and forceful response” if the North proceeds with a nuclear test but didn’t elaborate.

Participants arrive at the headquarters of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee in Pyongyang on June 8, 2022.

Korean Central News Agency—Korea News Service/AP

Sherman’s visit to Asia came after North Korea launched a single-day record of eight ballistic missiles into the sea from multiple locations across its territory on Sunday, prompting the U.S. and its Asian allies to respond with tit-for-tat missile launches and aerial demonstrations involving dozens of fighter jets.

Kim Song, North Korean Envoy to the U.N. General Assembly, criticized those who want stronger sanctions for North Korea over the North’s weapons testing in a Wednesday speech. He said his country was exercising its rights to self-defense by modernizing its weapons while facing “direct threats” by the United States, which is “hell bent on reinforcing” its military might in the Korean Peninsula and northern Asia.

His comments were backed by envoys from China and Russia, who questioned the effectiveness of sanctions in slowing North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. China’s envoy urged the United States to make significant concessions, such as lifting sanctions in certain areas and halting its joint military exercises with Asian allies that North Korea portrays as invasion rehearsals.

North Korea, reviving an old tradition of bickermanship has set an annual record for ballistic launches in the first half 2022. It fired 31 missiles at 18 launch events and also demonstrated its first ICBMs since 2017.

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The unusually fast pace in testing activity underscores Kim Jong Un’s dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at leveraging its nukes for badly needed economic benefits and security concessions, experts say.

Kim could up the pressure soon, as U.S. officials and South Korean officials claim that North Korea is almost done with preparations for detonating a nuclear weapon at Punggye-ri’s testing grounds. The site had been inactive since hosting the North’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb designed for its ICBMs.

Kim Jun-rak, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the South Korean and U.S. militaries were closely monitoring North Korean activities at nuclear-related facilities and sites but didn’t make specific predictions about the timing of the possible nuclear test.

Analysts believe that North Korea could claim to have the ability to make a small bomb large enough to cluster on a multiwarhead ICBM, or its growing array of short-range missiles that threaten South Korea and Japan.

Face masks are used to disinfect the hands of students arriving at Pyongyang University Medical on April 22, 2020 for a presentation on COVID-19 prevention.

Kim Won Jin—AFP/Getty Images

Kim Jong Un not daunted by the threat of COVID-19

Kim Jong Un’s pressure campaign hasn’t been slowed by the COVID-19 outbreak, despite fears it may be severe in a country that has poor public health care and was largely unvaccinated. GAVI (the non-profit that manages the U.N.-backed COVAX vaccine distribution program) believes North Korea is now giving China doses. But the number of doses and how they were being distributed wasn’t known.

Some experts say North Korea would prioritize inoculating groups based on the country’s economic needs, including workers and soldiers involved in trade or major construction projects Kim considers crucial to his rule. COVAX vaccines were not available in North Korea, according to some reports. This was due to the fact that they had strict distribution monitoring requirements.

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Although the Biden administration said that it would press for sanctions to be imposed on North Korea if they conduct another nuclear test in the future, there are no clear prospects of meaningful punitive action due to the differences between the permanent members and the U.N Security Council.

This year, China and Russia vetoed U.S. sponsored resolutions which would have raised sanctions. Washington must focus instead on the revival of dialogue. Nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea have stalled since 2019 because of disagreements over easing sanctions in exchange for North Korean disarmament steps, which underscored Kim’s unwillingness to give away an arsenal he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.

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