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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 248 (February 7, 2013)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

Kim Jong-un Makes 'Important Decision' over Pyongyang's Possible Nuke Test

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- As speculation runs rampant that a North Korean nuclear test is imminent, international communities have put pressure on the socialist country to abandon its plan. But Pyongyang has been unleashing a series of harsh rhetoric in recent weeks against the United States and South Korea.

   North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made an "important decision" regarding the socialist state's security and sovereignty at a military meeting, a news report said on Feb. 3.

   The report of the military meeting comes on the heels of speculation that North Korea is poised to conduct its third nuclear test anytime soon. The North has threatened to detonate a nuclear device in retaliation of the U.N. Security Council's resolution condemning its Dec. 12 long-range rocket launch.

   In its latest sign for preparing for a nuclear test, sources in Seoul said the North has put a screen over the entrance to the western tunnel of the test site in Punggye-ri in the North's northeastern tip in an apparent attempt to block outside monitoring of the detonation.

   The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Kim Jong-un presided over an "enlarged meeting" of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party of (North) Korea (WPK). The KCNA's report did not specify when or where the meeting was held, but said members of the commission and commanding officers of the large combined units, including the navy, air force and strategic rocket force, were present.

   "Kim Jong-un made an important concluding speech, which serves as guidelines for further strengthening of the (North) Korean People's Army (KPA) into a matchless revolutionary army of Mt. Paektu and defending the security and sovereignty of the country as required by the WPK and the developing revolution," the KCNA said.

   The report added the participants also discussed "the issue of bringing about a great turn in bolstering up the military capability," in line with the country's "songun," or military-first politics.

   On Feb. 2, North Korea threatened "deadly retaliation" against South Korea if it takes part in any sanctions imposed on the communist country for its December long-range rocket launch.

   "The DPRK is fully ready for both economic and military sanctions and anyone who encroaches upon its dignity and sovereignty even a bit with any form of sanctions will not be able to avoid deadly retaliation," North Korea said in the form of a statement issued by its Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland that handles inter-Korean relations. The DPRK stands for the DPRK (North Korea).

   The committee's statement, carried by the KCNA, said a recent meeting of South Korean security ministers, chaired by President Lee Myung-bak, can only be seen as fueling confrontation with the North.

   It said comments made at the meeting can be seen as an attempt to wreak havoc on inter-Korean relations to the point that they cannot be repaired even if a new Seoul administration does take office later this month.

   During a meeting of its security ministers on Jan. 31, South Korea warned that it will slap tough sanctions on North Korea if it moves forward to test another atomic device. The North had previously detonated nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009.

   The North's statement, in particular, denounced the U.N. Security Council resolution tightening sanctions against the isolated country, and made clear that further provocations will lead to grave consequences.

   On Feb. 5, North Korea's media reports said it will "ruthlessly strike" back if the United States launches preemptive attacks on its nuclear facilities.

   The reports by the Minju Joson, a newspaper published by the North's Cabinet, and the KCNA are the latest in a series of harsh rhetoric that Pyongyang has been unleashing in recent weeks amid signs that it would soon conduct another atomic test.

   "If the United States and warmongers attack and try to weaken us, such expectations will be a huge miscalculation," the paper said in an article, declaring that the North has the ability to strike back.

   South Korean media reported on Feb. 4 that Washington and Seoul would not rule out any options if it becomes clear that North Korea would use nuclear weapons to attack.

   Citing South Korean media reports, Minju Joson said that if North Korea is attacked, its military and people will rise up and "mercilessly repel the perpetrators and start a victorious war of national unification."

   "War mongers should refrain from acting indiscriminately," it warned.

   Citing another South Korea media report, the North's paper claimed that Seoul and Washington jointly conducted simulated bombing attacks on the North's main nuclear complex in Yongbyon 10 years ago.

   The KCNA also said that Washington has clearly made known its intent to attack the North, citing the deployment of B-2 stealth bombers in Guam, conducting anti-missile tests and holding joint naval exercises with South Korea in waters close to the communist country.

   The news agency said Washington's confrontational stance against the communist country will force North Korea to make choices that are "beyond the imagination of hostile forces."

   It said a recent series of military moves by Seoul and Washington showed the extent of the "hysteria" they must feel toward a nuclear war, and claimed these actions revealed the U.S. attempt at a preemptive nuclear attack" on the North.

   The KCNA, moreover, stressed that the resolution does not ensure stability and peace on the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity. "Resolution on sanctions backed by the U.S. is nothing but a pretest to realize its hostile policy" toward the North, it said.

   In order to safeguard its sovereignty, North Korea will continue to build up its military and nuclear deterrence, the paper said. Right after the resolution was passed, North Korea openly warned that it could detonate another nuclear device at anytime.

   Under the situation, new signs of preparations for a nuclear test were detected recently. On Feb. 2, a South Korean government source said that increased activity has been spotted at a tunnel of North Korea's main underground nuclear site.

   "At a tunnel in the southern part of the test site in Punggye-ri, we've found that work presumed to be part of preparations for a nuclear test has entered its final stage," said a government source in Seoul on condition of anonymity.

   On Feb. 1, sources in Seoul said the North has put a screen over the entrance to the test site's western tunnel in what was seen as an attempt to thwart outside monitoring of the detonation.

   When it detonated its first nuclear device in 2006, North Korea used a similar screen to conceal last-minute preparations. No such cover was used in the North's second nuclear test in 2009.

   "The North may conduct the test at both the western and southern tunnels. But the recent activities spotted near the southern one could be aimed at distracting us from the more likely place of the western tunnel, so we are monitoring closely," the source said.

   Pyongyang had hinted that the next nuclear detonation will be of a "higher level," which may indicate it could test more than one device or experiment with a more powerful weapon, compared to those used in 2006 and 2009.

   The Punggye-ri site has three known tunnel entrances and multiple support buildings. The site is where the test is considered most likely to occur, according to government officials and experts.

   Amid escalating tensions, Seoul's defense ministry released captured footage of a tunnel map from the North's official Korean Central Television. In September 2010, the state-owned television company showed footage of a control room for the second nuclear test in a documentary dubbed "The Country That I Saw."

   The media said the room was used to control the second nuclear test, conducted on May 25, 2009. The South Korean officials analyzed the video and discovered a monitor in the assumed control room displaying a tunnel map.

   Officials from the South think that the tunnel on the western side of the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri was where the second test was carried out. The tunnel is a 1-kilometer, one-way path, winding inwards and leading to the test pit.

   There are 10 gates in the path that are supposed to close, including the entrance, in order to block the hazardous radioactivity from the atomic blast and absorb impact from the explosion.

   There are also three traps to collect debris. The pit at the end of the path is ground zero. The 10 gates could possibly be made of strong steel or concrete to prevent radioactive emissions. The three tunnels are dug into the 2,200-meter-tall Mt. Mantap.

   According to a government source in Seoul, senior North Korean officials have recently visited the western tunnel at the nuclear site, which was recently covered by a camouflage net to evade satellite monitoring.

   "After vehicles believed to be containing senior officials visited the western tunnel, a mine car was seen moving in and out of the tunnel," the source said asking for anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

   While North Korea exploded plutonium bombs in 2006 and 2009, it is not yet known whether Pyongyang will test a uranium-based bomb or explode a mix of uranium and plutonium devices simultaneously in separate tunnels.

   If progress has been made since the isolated state revealed its uranium enrichment centrifuge plant to an American nuclear expert in November 2010, Seoul officials believe the North will be capable of testing a uranium bomb, which could open a second route to conduct an atomic test and make weapons.

   After Pyongyang successfully launched a long-range missile in December, the main question now is whether the North has accumulated technology to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a delivery device that can fly as far as the United States.

   Examining the debris from the rocket booster, South Korean experts concluded the impoverished nation under heavy United Nations sanction independently built most of its key parts, and the rocket could fly as far as 10,000 kilometers, the distance to strike western U.S.

   Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) will take "very stern and strong" action should North Korea carry out another nuclear test, Seoul's top envoy to the international organization warned on Feb. 4.

   In a meeting with reporters, Kim Sook, who holds the rotating UNSC chairmanship this month, said Pyongyang's third atomic test in its Punggye-ri site in the country's northeast is imminent. "The stances of the 15 UNSC member states are united and firm. If North Korea carries out another nuclear test, I anticipate that (the UNSC) would take swift, grave measures," he said.

   "The UNSC cannot just sit idle when the North makes a shocking, provocative action. The North should give up a dangerous attempt that would undermine the authority and confidence of the UNSC."

   North Korea watchers presume that Pyongyang could conduct an underground test on Feb. 10, Lunar New Year's Day, or on Feb. 16, the birthday of late longtime despot Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader Kim Jong-un.

   The UNSC chairman's remarks came as Seoul and Washington are closely consulting over how to further sanction Pyongyang should it carry out the test in defiance of international warnings.

   Seoul officials believe that given its chairmanship this month, the UNSC could adopt fresh sanctions in a prompt manner.

   It remains unclear whether Seoul and Washington would seek to include Article 42 of U.N. Chapter 7, which offers grounds for military action, in a fresh sanction against the North as China and Russia could oppose it, experts said.

   There are many cases the UNSC quotes Chapter 7, which includes Article 41 authorizing economic and non-military sanctions, and Article 42 for military options.

   But China, the sole major ally of the reclusive state, has been opposed to quoting Article 42 in resolutions against the North. Beijing, however, opposes Pyongyang's nuclear test, sharing the view with Seoul that the North should not go ahead with its plan, and that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be maintained, according to Lim Sung-nam, Seoul's chief nuclear envoy.

   Lim made the remarks after his talks on Feb. 4 in Beijing with his Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei.

   Lee Kyu-hyung, the South Korean ambassador to Beijing, has already met with Wu and other senior Chinese diplomats, and asked them to help deter North Korea from carrying out the nuclear test, sources in Beijing said on Feb. 3.

   Multiple diplomatic sources in Beijing said the Chinese foreign ministry has summoned Ji Jae-ryong, the North Korean ambassador to China, on multiple occasions since Pyongyang declared its intentions on Jan. 24 to conduct the nuclear test.

   China expressed concerns that North Korea has abandoned its denuclearization efforts and has urged Pyongyang to "hold off" on plans for the nuclear test, the sources said, adding the Chinese officials also asked the North Koreans to "make the right decision," since its third nuclear test would generate an unprecedented amount of tension on the Korean Peninsula.

   Meanwhile, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the U.S. has been constantly contacting China over North Korean issues, adding that new Secretary of State John Kerry might seek to contact Beijing officials to have dialogue.

   On Feb. 5, U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Sung Kim reiterated that Pyongyang should cancel the test. "We continue to call on the DPRK (North Korea) to avoid any provocative behavior, become a responsible neighbor, and return to an authentic and credible diplomatic process toward our shared goal of denuclearization," he said during a security forum in Seoul.

   At the same forum, Siegfried Hecker, a renowned nuclear scientist at Stanford University, said that North Korea's nuclear threat is still in its infancy. He also stressed that Seoul and Washington should map out a new policy to deal with this threat before the North's ambitions become an "increasingly menacing and permanent fixture."

   Hecker made the remarks during a security forum in Seoul hosted by Yonhap News Agency and the Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) of Stanford University.

   "American and South Korean policies since 2002 designed to denuclearize North Korea have failed to halt the North's relentless march to enhance its nuclear programs -- from nuclear reactors, to uranium enrichment, to nuclear tests and its long-range missile capabilities," Hecker said.

   Many analysts have raised doubts over Washington's so-called "strategic patience" approach toward North Korea, a policy of shunning direct talks with the North until it agrees to abide by past nuclear commitments.