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North Korea delays nuclear test due to pressure from China, fear of backlash: experts

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un laughs during a meeting of the central military commission of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, Wednesday, to discuss major tasks to build up national defense and implement key defense policies. Yonhap
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un laughs during a meeting of the central military commission of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, Wednesday, to discuss major tasks to build up national defense and implement key defense policies. Yonhap

Pyongyang's next test could involve more powerful bomb: RAND analyst

By Kang Seung-woo

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has yet to press the nuclear button, despite urgent warnings from South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities that the North has completed preparations for another nuclear test.

Diplomatic observers agree that a nuclear test is still imminent. But they believe the delay may be due to pressure from China or because Pyongyang is weighing the possible political repercussions.

Citing comments made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Eighth Workers' Party Conference in January 2021 that his country will enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities, as well as the 31 missiles launched so far this year and the reconstruction of its nuclear test site, Joseph DeTrani, a former U.S. special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, said the reclusive country is prepared for a seventh nuclear test.

However, DeTrani said pressure from China may be behind the delayed nuclear test, because increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula with South Korea and the United States is not in the best interests of Beijing.

China is North Korea's sole economic pipeline and diplomatic guardian, which prevents the United Nations Security Council from imposing sanctions on the totalitarian state for its provocations.

"China may be encouraging North Korea to refrain from another nuclear test, concerned that the reaction of the United States and South Korea could further exacerbate relations with North Korea and bring greater tension to the Korean Peninsula, with the possibility of accidental conflict," he said.

"China does not want greater tension ― and indeed conflict ― on the Korean Peninsula, given the myriad of issues on Chinese President Xi Jinping's plate, requiring his immediate attention," DeTrani added.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations at King's College London, also presented a similar view of China's role.

"I would imagine that China is trying to press North Korea not to conduct another nuclear test, since it would bring more instability to the region," he said.

"So probably Kim has to consider the extent to which he wants to anger China with a new test. Neither Beijing nor Moscow will allow new U.N. Security Council sanctions to be imposed on North Korea, but China remains Pyongyang's main economic lifeline, so Kim has to maintain good relations with it," Pacheco Pardo added.

Amid growing concerns over a possible North Korean nuclear test, the U.S. government recently discussed the issue with China, according to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who held discussions with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, in Europe earlier this month.

Plus, the South Korean presidential office also seems to believe that China is playing a role in North Korea pushing back a nuclear test.

Along with the China variable, the North Korean leader seems to be weighing the political repercussions of another nuclear test, which would be the first since 2017, according to experts.

"I genuinely think that Kim Jong-un has yet to decide whether the benefits of a new nuclear test outweigh the costs," Pacheco Pardo said.

According to the expert, the main benefit for North Korea from its seventh nuclear test would be the continued improvement of its technology.

"But potential costs include new sanctions from South Korea and the U.S., pushing back the possibility of any diplomacy with them, and China and Russia becoming displeased due to the instability that a test would bring," Pacheco Pardo said.

He also said the North Korean leader tried to present his country as a responsible nuclear power in 2017, but conducting a test would undermine that claim.

"If Kim really wanted to conduct the nuclear test without any doubt, he would have already gone ahead. Thus, why I think that he is undecided," he added.

Bruce Bennett, a senior international defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, speculated that North Korean scientists had not yet completed the nuclear weapon he wants tested.

"Kim knows that he can only test a small number of nuclear weapons without really serious U.S. retaliation, and even one test could cause a serious retaliation. So he likely is trying to have a weapon worth testing, and his scientists may not have given him that yet," Bennett said.

Bennett also said Kim often waits for the right timing to initiate major provocations.

"He may be waiting for a particular anniversary or other event (for example, July 4, when his father tested ballistic missiles in 2006 and 2009), or to retaliate against some perceived U.S. offense," he added.

According to South Korean authorities, North Korea's unprecedented missile tests so far this year as well as its preparations for a nuclear test are seen as part of moves to develop tactical nuclear weapons, which have a small yield warhead of up to 20 kilotons that are compact enough to mount on short or mid-range missiles, raising speculation that a tactical nuclear weapon may be tested this time.

However, Bennett, a defense analyst, was skeptical of the speculation.

"I have heard a lot of speculation on Kim testing tactical nuclear weapons. But the yields of tactical nuclear weapons tend to be in the range of his first to fifth nuclear tests ― nothing new, nothing too exciting (and how would we know if it is miniaturized or not?)," he said.

The yields of North Korea's first five nuclear tests were estimated to reach up to 25 kilotons, but the sixth was estimated to have a yield of up to 100 kilotons.

"Kim is going to want a political benefit, and it is not clear that gets him any. I think it is entirely possible that he will test a bigger nuclear weapon, more like the sixth test or perhaps even bigger ― something that would make major world news," Bennett said, admitting that it would demonstrate Kim's power, even though China would be furious.

Kang Seung-woo

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