North Korea appeared to pull back from the nuclear brink on Tuesday, after weeks of signaling that it is preparing for a fourth nuclear test.
In a statement attributed to North Korea’s Foreign Ministry and published on the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang said that there was “no statute of limitations” on its previous threat to conduct a “new form of nuclear test.”
Most of the statement rehashed President Barack Obama’s recent Asia trip from the viewpoint of Pyongyang, which has repeatedly argued that Obama’s trip was geared towards entrenching American hegemony in Asia and ramping up hostility against North Korea. However, the final paragraph read in part:
“The DPRK will advance along the road of bolstering up nuclear deterrent, unhindered, now that the U.S. brings the dark clouds of a nuclear war to hang over the DPRK. There is no statute of limitations to the DPRK’s declaration that it will not rule out a new form of nuclear test clarified by it in the March 30 statement. This is the exercise of the inviolable right to self-defense [emphasis added].”
The italicized sentence suggests that North Korea may be considering delaying another nuclear test at least for the time being. There are other reasons to believe that this may be the case. For instance, North Korea often times its provocations to coincide with symbolic events. In this context, there were many chances for Pyongyang to proceed with the nuclear test during the month of April.
For example, Kim Jong-un was officially inaugurated as the first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea on April 11, 2012. Similarly, April 15 is the birthday of North Korea’s founder and eternal leader Kim Il-sung. Each year North Korea holds its biggest annual festival to celebrate the birth of the founder of the DPRK, and often engages in external provocations around this time. Then, of course, North Korea could have conducted the test during President Obama’s week-long trip to Asia, particularly the part of the trip in which the U.S. president was in South Korea.
In addition, China has been more forceful than usual in publicly objecting to another North Korean nuclear test, and has signaled that there would be repercussions for Pyongyang should it ignore these warnings. It’s possible that North Korea has decided to heed these warnings.
Another possibility is that there have been technical issues with the impending nuclear test that have forced North Korea to delay it. As noted above, North Korea threatened to carry out a “new form of nuclear test,” which has been interpreted to mean a number of different things by foreign analysts. For example, some believe North Korea was implying that it would explode a uranium-based nuclear device, or test multiple explosives at the same time. In any case, Pyongyang clearly intended to signal that something would be new about its next nuclear test, which raises the possibility that unforeseen technical issues have delayed it.
That being said, the possibility of a fourth nuclear test in the near future cannot be ruled. In fact, satellite imagery taken as recently as Tuesday continued to show activities at North Korea’s nuclear test site that are consistent with preparations for a nuclear test.