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North Korea sending mixed signals on nuclear test

To test, or not to test? The North Korean nuclear question hangs in the balance.

North korea launch 2013 1 31Enlarge
Between its satellite launches and nuclear tests, North Korea appears to be moving closer to its goal of developing intercontinental strike capabilities. (AFP/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea is sending mixed messages about its threatened nuclear test, according to The Korea Herald, a South Korean publication citing North Korean sources.

Last month, North Korea responded to new sanctions over its Dec. 12 rocket launch by vowing a third nuclear test at a "higher level."

But now state propaganda maintains that when the communist country's young leader, Kim Jong-un, declared he would carry out "important measures" amid tensions, he wasn't talking about a nuclear detonation at all, The Herald reported.

The "US and hostile forces jumped to conclusions that the republic is planning the third nuclear test," said the Herald, referring to an article in the North Korean weekly Tongil Sinbo.

So, which way is it?

GlobalPost's senior correspondent in East Asia, Geoffrey Cain, said, as with anything in the notoriously closed hermit state, it's hard to tell.

"It's entirely possible that leaders are trying to use, albeit badly, confusion tactics against the outside world," Cain emailed from Seoul.

It helps, though, to look at the precedents.

  • In earlier nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, the regime detonated a weapon in response to UN and US sanctions.
  • In 2006, Pyongyang was especially angry when the US Treasury Department seized $25 million in North Korean assets from a Macau bank.
  • This time, the UN Security Council extended sanctions for a December satellite launch, which was banned under earlier embargoes.

"Satellite imagery suggests activity at a potential nuclear test site, even with the military obscuring tunnel entrances with camouflage," Cain reported.

"The pattern here, combined with the North's angry bluster, isn't much different from what it did last time it demonstrated its primitive nuclear capabilities to the world," he continued.

The North Korean website Uriminzokkiri ("Our people, together") went on to criticize what it called the "abomination of the United States making a big scene without knowing anything," reported The Asahi Shimbun, a leading Japan paper. 

That said, according to Shimbun, "South Korean government officials were not letting down their guard."

Geoffrey Cain contributed to this report from South Korea.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/130211/north-korea-sending-mixed-signals-nuclear-test