North Korea is testing Northeast Asian diplomacy again. This time, American intelligence is saying that the Stalinist state is planning an underground nuclear test.
It is hard to verify US intelligence on this North Korean test plan. The Americans are not revealing the source of their information or confirming its authenticity either. "It's a hypothetical question," Bush told reporters. "And you're asking me to divulge intelligence information I have. I'm not going to do that, as you know."
A senior military official based the assertion on "suspicious vehicle movement" at a suspected North Korean test site. US news network ABC was also told that suspicious activities included the unloading of large reels of cable outside an underground facility called Pungyee-yok in northeast North Korea. ABC said “cables can be used in nuclear testing to connect an underground test site to observation equipment”.
Last year, a similar prediction by US intelligence turned out to be a false lead. United States had also failed to predict underground nuclear tests by India andPakistan in 1998. Given the amorphous nature of the evidence presented, South Korean officials have reacted cautiously to the suspected testing. A senior South Korean foreign ministry official said that "in cooperation with the United States, we always keep a close watch on North Korea's nuclear and missile activities".
The Russian Foreign Ministry is more critical of US intelligence, labelling US focus on North Korea as attempts to "inflame" the situation. "At the moment we have no information that would confirm such reports," a spokesman at Russia's foreign ministry said. "Such information appears regularly in the foreign media but so far no reports of this kind have been confirmed," the spokesman told AFP.
Likely to further “inflame” the regional tensions in Northeast Asia is the annual US and South Korean military exercise. The exercise, Ulchi Focus Lens, has been held without major incident for decades, but this time, the North has upped its ante and branded the exercise as a prelude to invasion and nuclear war, vowing to boost its own nuclear deterrent in response.
Whether the North Koreans would use this military exercise as an excuse to step up preparations for a nuclear test, the reality is that a North Korean underground nuclear test would push the already troubled Northeast Asian diplomacy to the brink.
Northeast Asian regionalism already faces unnecessarily complicated political tensions due to the recent 15 August 2006 Yasukuni Shrine visit by Japanese PM Koizumi which saw Beijing and Seoul summoning the Japanese ambassadors in both capitals for a protest. Japan-Russian ties have also been frayed by Russian shooting of a Japanese fisherman whom Russia accused of entering disputed waters between the two countries.
South Korea, Russia and China are all vital partners of the six-party talks aimed at reaching reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula. Japan’s difficult relations with half of the members of the six-party talks may pose further complications if they take radically different perspectives on the alleged tests. A glimpse of this was already demonstrated in the recent North Korean missile test when Japan raised the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.
Bush warns North Korea not to pursue nuclear testing (Channelnewsasia, 19 August 2006)
Bush warns North Korea not to pursue nuclear testing (AFP, 18 August 2006)
South Korea, Russia cautious on North Korea nuclear report (Channelnewsasia, 18 August 2006)
US, South Korea to start military drills, North sees war (Straits Times Interactive, 22 August 2006)