North Korea all set for nuke test: South Korean minister

South Korea's Unification Minister Kwon Young-se said North Korea intends to "maximise" the impact of any nuclear test. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - North Korea is all set to conduct its first nuclear test in five years, according to South Korea's new Unification Minister Kwon Young-se.

"Everything is ready, what's left is a political decision," he said at a briefing for foreign media held in Seoul on Monday (June 27).

The regime, which started accelerating its missile programme in January, has reportedly completed all preparations for the nuclear test, its seventh to date, but has yet to carry it out.

Some experts speculated that the test is being delayed because of the Covid-19 outbreak in North Korea, which has recorded 4.72 million cases so far, while others attributed it to bad weather, as it is now monsoon season.

Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, followed by tests in May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, September 2016, and September 2017.

Mr Kwon, who took office three days after the May 10 inauguration of new President Yoon Suk-yeol, said "it is unknown to us" why the much-talked-about seventh test has yet to happen.

"What I can share is that they intend to maximise the impact of any nuclear test so they are testing waters for now," he added.

If the North does push ahead with the plan, South Korea's response will be "more stern than what you have seen in recent times", said Mr Kwon, a prosecutor-turned-lawmaker.

"A nuclear test is a very serious threat to regional stability and international peace," he noted. "It will draw massive criticism from the international community that is more than just verbal. We will make it clear to North Korea that it has to stop its nuclear ambitions and come back to the negotiating table."

Describing South Korea's relations with the North as a "long relay race", Mr Kwon said the Yoon administration is still reviewing the details of its North Korea policy but "sudden change is not desirable".

"We will inherit the framework of the previous administration's North Korea policy but we will not just copy and follow, we will evolve and further develop it," he added.

Former liberal president Moon Jae-in was pro-engagement and helped broker the historic first summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former American president Donald Trump, held in Singapore in 2018.

Negotiations have stalled since 2019 when the second Trump-Kim summit broke down due to differences over sanctions relief and denuclearisation steps.

The more hawkish President Yoon, who leans conservative, has made it clear he will adopt a tougher stance against North Korea while keeping the door to dialogue open.

South Korea has also offered to send vaccines to North Korea to help the regime cope with Covid-19, but received no response.

Critics have urged Seoul and Washington to come up with bold new ways to re-engage Pyongyang, which has dialled up the harsh rhetoric against Seoul recently, speaking of the South in terms such as "gang dae gang" (which means to pit power against power) and "dae cheog du jaeng" (head-to-head battle).

There is also speculation that North Korea is planning to deploy tactical weapons to the heavily-guarded border it shares with the South - a move that would raise tensions between the two countries.

"But, moving weapons closer to South Korea could also suggest a desire and willingness to resume negotiations," said Mr Kwon. "As the saying goes, the darkest hour is just before dawn."

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