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(2nd LD) S. Korea says N. Korea preparing for nuke test, but test not imminent

2015/10/20 17:42

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details of briefing)

SEOUL, Oct. 20 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is preparing for a nuclear test, though no test appears to be imminent, a ruling party lawmaker said Tuesday, citing South Korea's spy agency.

Lee Chul-woo of the ruling Saenuri Party made the comment to reporters after being briefed by the National Intelligence Service during the parliamentary inspection of the spy agency.

The North has recently proposed that it may conduct a nuclear test in response to what it claims is the hostile policy of the United States and its allies.

North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, drawing international condemnation and U.N. sanctions.

Lee also said North Korea did not launch a rocket earlier this month on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party due to international pressure, China's opposition and North Korea's technical ill-preparedness.

Liu Yunshan, who ranks fifth in China's ruling Communist Party hierarchy, visited Pyongyang for the North's key anniversary and talked with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

There is lingering speculation that Pyongyang may still launch a long-range rocket in the coming months to put what it claims is a satellite into orbit.

Seoul and Washington view a satellite launch as a cover for testing the North's ballistic missile technology, which is banned under U.N. resolutions.

The North has claimed that it mastered the technology to make nuclear warheads small enough to mount on missiles.

Adm. William Gortney, commander of U.S. Northern Command, said earlier this month he agrees with the intelligence community's assessment the North has the ability and technology to put nuclear weapons on rockets that can reach the continental United States.

Lee, however, said North Korea has not mastered the miniaturization technology, citing South Korea's spy agency.

Separately, Lee said 20 North Korean officials stationed in foreign countries defected to South Korea in the first 10 months of this year, compared to 8 in 2013 and 18 in 2014.

A stream of North Koreans continue to defect to South Korea to avoid chronic food shortages and harsh political oppression after being influenced by South Korean and other broadcasts, Lee said.

North Korea is a tightly controlled society and its people are officially forbidden from listening to news from outside sources.

The dials on radios and televisions are fixed so that only state broadcasts can be heard out of concern that outside influence seeping inside the country could pose a threat to leader Kim Jong-un's rule.

But many North Koreans are believed to be secretly watching or listening to South Korean television and radio broadcasts. Some people in the areas bordering China also communicate with people in China and South Korea through mobile phones smuggled in from China.

Meanwhile, Kim's aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, is under medical treatment in Pyongyang, Shin Kyoung-min, a lawmaker of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, told reporters after attending the close-door session.

Kim's aging aunt was last seen in public on Sept. 9, 2013, when she watched a military performance.

North Korea executed Jang Song-thaek, Kyong-hui's once-powerful husband, in December 2013 on charges of treason.