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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 248 (February 7, 2013)

S. Korea Tightens Inspections of Materials Going to Kaesong Complex

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea plans to enhance its screening process for materials and industrial parts going to the Kaesong complex in North Korea to reflect the recent U.N. Security Council resolution calling for tighter sanctions, a senior policymaker said on Feb. 4.

   Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik told lawmakers belonging to parliament's Unification, Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee that the actions are in accordance with the international community's stance to effectively hold the North accountable for its latest provocations.

   The Kaesong complex is home to 123 South Korean companies that make goods using cheap North Korean labor, with all materials needed to make products there shipped from South Korea. Despite frosty South-North ties under the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administration, Seoul had not halted economic cooperation taking place at the industrial park, which is viewed as the crowning achievement of the 2000 inter-Korean summit meeting.

   Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket on Dec. 12 that the outside world sees as a cover to test banned ballistic missile technology. Such technology can give the socialist country the capability to send a nuclear warhead as far away as the United States.

   He added that both Seoul and Washington are of the opinion that the North can detonate another nuclear device whenever it wants to. The isolationist country conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 at its Punggye-ri test complex, and proclaimed in its 2012 revised Constitution that it is a nuclear power.

   Yu said that South Korea and other countries have persistently sent a "strong message" to Pyongyang not to move forward with an atomic test and to focus more on improving the livelihood of its people.

   "Another test depends on the will of the country's leadership," he said.

   The minister then warned that if a third test takes place, it should not be seen in the same light as the two previous cases.

   "A third test may mean that the country is in the final stages (of its nuclear weapons development)," he claimed.

   Related to the comments made by the policymaker on Kaesong, ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said tightening inspections may cause some delays although this will not really affect normal business operations. He hinted that more samples of shipments going North will be checked compared to the past to prevent unauthorized goods from being shipped over the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries.

   "There is nothing wrong with the screening process at present and the measure can be seen as Seoul following through on the U.N. resolution passed on Jan. 23 (Korea time)," the official said.

   He declined to say what actions Seoul would take if the North opts to go ahead with the nuclear test.

   Meanwhile, the ministry in charge of holding talks with the North and setting long-term unification policies said in a report submitted to the National Assembly that the December rocket launch was a ploy to gain recognition as a nuclear power and use it to engage the United States in disarmament talks.

   It added that carrying out a test could highlight the stability of the regime and strengthen leader Kim Jong-un's grip on power. It could also put pressure on the new Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea that takes power on Feb. 25.

   Kim took control of the country in late 2011 after the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il, who had led North Korea since 1994.

   The ministry did not speculate on when the next test will take place, but said it may be timed to have the greatest political and military impact at home and abroad.


Park Urges N. Korea to Immediately Halt Nuclear Test Plans

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's president-elect Park Geun-hye urged North Korea on Feb. 4 to immediately drop its nuclear test plans amid increased movement at the test site that points to an imminent third blast.

   A mine car has been spotted moving in and out of the western tunnel of the test site in Punggye-ri in the North's northeastern tip. A car believed to have been carrying a senior official was also spotted at the tunnel's western part, an official said on condition of anonymity, citing the issue's sensitivity.

   The visit to the western tunnel by an unidentified official sparked speculation in South Korea that the North wanted to carry out a final inspection of the site before going ahead with its third nuclear test.

   North Korea is believed to have completed preparations for the nuclear test, which it could carry out at any time. Pyongyang has in recent weeks stepped up its threats to go ahead with a test in response to a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning its Dec. 12 long-range rocket launch.

   The North has claimed the launch was intended to put a satellite into orbit, but South Korea and the United States denounced it as a disguised test of missile technology. The U.N. has banned such launches due to concern they could be used to develop ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

   Park warned the socialist nation would gain nothing but strong punishment from the international community if it forges ahead with an atomic blast.

   "I once again urge that North Korea halt this (nuclear test plan) immediately," Park said in remarks made at the start of a security briefing from her transition team. "North Korea should understand it has nothing to gain from this provocation and should know that it will rather face strong responses from the international community."

   Her comment came a day after the North's state media reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made an "important" decision regarding the socialist state's security and sovereignty.

   Park also said in a separate meeting with former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry earlier in the day that the North "should be made to take responsibility for its wrong actions."

   The warnings are believed to be Park's strongest yet against the socialist nation pushing ahead with a test, a security challenge that would also put her leadership to a serious test.

   Park, set to take office on Feb. 25, said the main point of her North Korea policy is to build up trust between the two Koreas so as to improve relations and realize "sustainable peace." A key precondition for the policy is for North Korea to "make a right choice" and focus on improving the lives of its people, rather than nuclear and missile development, she said.


Unification Ministry Sets up Team to Cope with N. Korea's Nuke Test

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's Ministry of Unification said on Feb. 6 that it has set up an internal monitoring and quick response team to better handle North Korea's expected nuclear weapons test.

   "The team made up of officials from the ministry's policy office, situation analysis and inter-Korean cooperation bureaus will carefully review present conditions and establish proper responses (in the event of a test)," said spokeswoman Park Soo-jin.

   The team started work earlier in the day with its operations being a continuation of the constant monitoring and policy formulation carried out by the ministry in the past.

   The latest move by the ministry in charge of establishing inter-Korean unification policies comes as the South Korean government is on high alert after the North threatened to conduct a "higher level" of nuclear test in defiance of the international community's condemnation of its Dec. 12 long-range rocket launch.

   The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution on Jan. 23 that tightened sanctions against the isolationist country for the rocket launch that many view as a cover by Pyongyang to test its ballistic missile technology.

   The official also stressed that the North should respect the U.N. resolution and make the "right choices" at this juncture. She said Pyongyang should not try to conduct another nuclear test that would go against the wishes of the international community, and pointed out that the next detonation will be different from those carried out by the North in the past.

   The ministry has said that a third test would be different from the 2006 and 2009 detonations since it can signify the North has entered the final stages of its development of nuclear weapons. Such a step poses serious security challenges for South Korea and the rest of the world.


Military Commander Hints at 'Pre-emptive Strike' on North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- South Korea's top military commander said on Feb. 6 that his military is ready to make a "pre-emptive strike" against North Korea, even at the risk of a full-scale war, if there are signs that the North may attack using nuclear weapons ahead of its third nuclear test.

   Gen. Jung Seung-jo, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the remarks during a parliamentary defense meeting convened as tension runs high on the Korean Peninsula after Pyongyang vowed to conduct a nuclear test in retaliation for the U.N. sanction against the country for its December rocket launch.

   Asked if the military is ready to deter North Korea's nuclear attack, Jung said, "If (the North) shows a clear intent to use a nuclear weapon, it is better to get rid of it and go on a war, rather than being attacked."

   His remark came after Pyongyang on Tuesday threatened "stronger" measures other than a third nuclear test to cope with "hostile forces' nuclear-war moves," without spelling out the actions it would take.

   While the military currently does not have a plan to destroy the North's test site in its northeastern tip, Jung said he will make a decision according to how circumstances develop.

   Regarding the type of fissile material, Jung said North Korea is likely to detonate a "boosted fission weapon," a smaller and more sophisticated nuclear bomb, dismissing speculation that the North is going to test a hydrogen bomb.

   A fusion-boosted fission bomb induces nuclear fusion with slight nuclear fission, enabling smaller, lighter bombs with less fissile material for a given yield. Either uranium or plutonium can be used to develop the bomb.

   "Experts say (the North's) bomb has come to a level before a complete hydrogen bomb," Jung said. "We don't exclude the possibility of the North testing a boosted weapon."

   In May 2010, North Korea announced it had succeeded in achieving nuclear fusion.

   Now that the North has successfully fired off a long-range rocket, it could pose a direct threat to its neighbors as well as the United States if it develops a warhead small enough to be mounted on a missile.

   While experts believe the isolated country currently lacks the ability to build a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, they expect the upcoming test to give a glimpse of the North's latest nuclear program.

   "Considering that the North conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, it has made considerable progress in miniaturizing the nuclear bomb," the JCS chairman said, noting that it usually takes four years to fit a nuclear warhead after a test.

   Pyongyang's 2006 test is estimated to have yielded less than 1 kiloton (equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT), and the 2009 test estimated to have reached some 2-6 kilotons. A Nagasaki-type bomb dropped in Japan during World War II produced about 20 kilotons.

   As preparations are underway in an underground tunnel, Jung said the North may test plutonium-based or uranium-based or both.

   "As the North used plutonium in two previous tests, it may want to test a stronger, advanced bomb," the four-star general said. "We are monitoring the North, speculating that it could use highly enriched uranium, or use both (uranium and plutonium)."

   U.S. nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who visited the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in late 2010, also gave a similar prediction in a recent interview with Yonhap News that the North could stage two explosions, one using plutonium so as to perfect its capacity to design a small warhead and a second using uranium.

   Recent satellite imagery shows increased activity near the Punggye-ri test site, pointing to an imminent test, but it is not yet known if the North planted a trigger for an underground test.