The Obama administration rebuked North Korea on Thursday for its threat to conduct its third nuclear test and launch long-range rockets designed to "target against the U.S.," with the White House calling it "needlessly provocative."
Pyongyang's belligerent proclamation came in response to a U.N. Security Council resolution, approved unanimously on Tuesday, that imposes new sanctions for the communist nation's nuclear activities, warns of "significant" action if North Korea conducts another nuclear test and condemns its unexpectedly successful rocket launch in December.
But for some analysts it simply highlighted that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is relying heavily on the "military first" ideology, or Songun, of his dead father, Kim Jong-il, as a way to keep his military happy and maintain his grip of power over a populace suffering food shortages from years of sanctions.
"According to Songun, the American imperialists seek to enslave Koreans and the world, and the only way to avoid this catastrophic outcome is to acquire the military capabilities to deter the U.S.," said Daniel Pinkston, the Seoul-based deputy project director of International Crisis Group's Northeast Asia program. "From the Songun perspective, it's always a good time to demonstrate your power to earn the respect of the international community. In the Songun mindset, power is the real currency of the international system."
"If they go by the Songun playbook, they'll test," Mr. Pinkston said. "If I were a betting man, I'd place my money on them using the Songun playbook."
The North Korean threat rippled across the globe.
Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, said another nuclear test would be a "mistake," "a missed opportunity" and "highly provocative."
"Further provocations are not going to help the process forward. They would only retard it, make it much more difficult for us to engage," Mr. Davies said during a trip to South Korea's capital, Seoul. He was expected to arrive in Tokyo for talks on Monday.
North Korea's National Defense Commission issued the threat in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency on Thursday.
"We do not hide that the various satellites and long-range rockets we will continue to launch, as well as the high-level nuclear test we will proceed with, are aimed at our arch-enemy the United States," the National Defense Commission said.
Pyongyang did not offer any time frame for its plans. However, once the order is given, a nuclear test could take place within a matter of weeks, say analysts.
"If we look at the satellite photos of the test site, it is in a state of readiness," said Joel Wit, a former State Department official who manages 38 North, a program of the School of Advanced International Studies' U.S.-Korea Institute that is devoted to analysis of North Korea.
Recent photographs of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in northeastern North Korea show that the North Koreans quickly repaired damage caused to infrastructure at the site by flooding last summer and fall. They also have restored its capability to conduct a test at the south tunnel of the site.
"If the order were given, they could probably conduct a test in a period of a few weeks," said Mr. Wit. "But the key point there is, if the order is given."
Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it is highly likely that North Korea will make good on its promise to conduct a nuclear test.
"I don't predict what North Korea will do, as a rule," Mr. Snyder said. "But I have noticed that usually they have a high degree of consistency in terms of follow-through on this sort of expression of intent."
If North Korea does conduct a nuclear test, governments and analysts will pay close attention to determine whether uranium was used. It is unclear whether North Korea has mastered the technology to produce highly enriched uranium and has enough for a bomb.
North Korea's past two nuclear tests — in 2006 and 2009 in response to U.N. sanctions punishing it for launching rockets — were plutonium-based devices.
North Korea's pursuit of its nuclear ambitions has strained its relationship with its ally China, and curtailed Beijing's influence in Pyongyang.
China voted in support of the U.N. resolution that demanded Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons program in a "complete, verifiable and irreversible manner." The resolution also ordered Pyongyang to cease rocket launches.
The Chinese supported the U.N. resolution because "they recognized that they have limited ability to restrain North Korea from taking additional actions that would have proved embarrassing to China," said Mr. Snyder.
The National Defense Commission statement followed a warning from North Korea's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday that Pyongyang will "take steps for physical counteraction to bolster the military capabilities for self-defense, including the nuclear deterrence, both qualitatively and quantitatively."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said North Korea's statement was "needlessly provocative" and a nuclear test would be a "significant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions."
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