Explainer-When will North Korea test a nuclear weapon? According to Reuters

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversees a rocket launch at an undisclosed location in North Korea, in this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on October 10, 2022. KCNA via REUTERS / File Photo

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s recent rocket launches have raised expectations that the country could soon test a nuclear device for the first time since 2017.

North Korea has completed all technical preparations for a new test in underground tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which has been closed since 2018, leaving questions of time in the hands of the leader. leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean officials said. .

Here’s what foreign officials and analysts have said about when and why North Korea might resume testing, what kind of device it could explode, and what the international response might be.


Only North Korea knows. And observers say that even within the country there is a possibility that only Kim or those around him knows the exact time.

North Korea is a particularly difficult target for US and foreign spies, who have let their guard down by some of the country’s advances, including the test of a hydrogen bomb and the launch of a ballistic missile. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with long-range strike capability. as the United States, both in 2017.

“We usually have a pretty good idea of ​​their capabilities that we can detect from satellites or other technical intelligence, but too much has to do with Kim Jong Un’s thinking. And we do. really don’t know,” a Western military official said in Seoul, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Satellite images show North Korea working to restore several tunnels this year that were closed in 2018, when Pyongyang announced a moratorium on nuclear weapons tests. However, Kim said he no longer feels bound by that moratorium, with denuclearization talks stalled since 2019.

South Korean lawmakers informed by the spy agency last month said a possible window for an examination could be between the Communist Party of China’s National Congress, which begins on October 16, and the election. midterm elections in the United States on November 7.

Analysts say other considerations that could shape Kim’s thinking are the COVID-19 situation in the country, the war in Ukraine, local holidays and signals from partners in China and Russia. .


If North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons, that could include developing smaller warheads intended for the battlefield – not hitting cities – and designed to be suitable for use, analysts said. short-range missiles like the one tested last weekend.

According to North Korean state media, recent missile tests involved units that operate tactical nuclear weapons.

Smaller devices could also allow North Korea to mount multiple warheads on an ICBM, allowing a single missile to hit multiple targets and complicate missile defense.

North Korea has also said it wants to deploy much larger nuclear weapons, so analysts say that may be on the way.

“They’ve only conducted a fairly limited number of nuclear tests,” said Vann Van Diepen, a former US government North Korea expert who now works on the 38 North project. “And any weapon developer… would love to have more tests done to have the highest confidence possible that these weapons will work.”

According to Western military officials, Kim is also seeking to legitimize his weapons program and could use a test to increase pressure on Washington while it is busy with the war in Ukraine. and other crises.


The United States and its allies in Asia have stated that the resumption of nuclear testing “will be met with a strong and resolute government-wide response”, but did not elaborate. The missile tests have been met with unilateral sanctions and a show of military force, including joint exercises and the deployment of US aircraft carriers.

North Korea’s previous nuclear tests also subject the United Nations Security Council to resolutions imposing sanctions, backed by China and Russia at the time.

However, those two countries have blocked many recent attempts to impose new security council resolutions.

Neither Beijing nor Moscow is likely to welcome a new test, analysts say, but they are unlikely to support any major new penalties.

“They probably won’t care about it. But I think that’s not as much of an issue for them now as it was five or 10 years ago because of the nature of their relationship with the US,” Van Diepen said.


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