North Korea is poised to conduct a nuclear test, Seoul said on Thursday, as the United States warned it could come as President Joe Biden visits South Korea this week.
The visits to Seoul, followed by Tokyo, are being touted as proof that Washington is seeking to cement its years-long pivot to Asia, where rising Chinese commercial and military power is undercutting decades of US dominance.
However, Biden’s first trip as president to the region looks set to be overshadowed by an increas-ingly belligerent North Korea.
Despite a spiralling Covid outbreak, Pyongy-ang’s “preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are only looking for the right time”, South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being briefed by Seoul’s spy agency.
US intelligence says there is a “genuine possi-bility” that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un could stage this “provocation” after Biden arrives in Seoul on Friday, his administration said.
This could mean “further missile tests, long-range missile tests or a nuclear test, or frankly both” around the time of Biden’s trip, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said.
Satellite imagery indicates North Korea is pre-paring to conduct what would be its seventh nuclear test — which would cap a record-breaking blitz of launches this year, including intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“North Korea will want to attract global attention by conducting a nuclear test during President Biden’s visit,” Cheong Seong-chang of the Center for North Korea Studies at the Sejong Institute said.
Biden, who will visit some of the nearly 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea, is ready to make “adjustments” to the US military posture in the region, and Seoul’s hawkish new President Yoon Suk-yeol is eager for stronger ties.
Both Biden and Yoon have said they’re open for talks with Pyongyang but they expect to see real progress on denuclearisation — which analysts say is anathema to Kim and will stall talks.
“Biden judges that the North Korean issue can’t be resolved through impromptu meetings between the leaders as Trump did,” said Woo Jung-yeop, a re-searcher at the Sejong Institute.
North Korea will be watching the outcome of the Yoon-Biden meeting Saturday very closely, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“Depending on the result, North Korea will de-cide on whether it will speed up or slow down its ICBM and nuclear tests,” Yang said.
Sullivan said the security situation regarding North Korea was being “closely” coordinated with South Korea and Japan and that he had also spoken about the issue with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday.
It is likely that Kim is still debating what to do, in particular due to this US pressure on Beijing — Kim’s sole major ally — to help rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and ICBM tests, the Sejong Institute’s Cheong said.—AFP