North Korea could still hold another nuclear test: Reports

Soldiers at a flower exhibition in Pyongyang yesterday, held as part of festivities to mark the 105th birth anniversary of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung. Pyongyang is set to celebrate another anniversary - the founding of its army on April 25 - a
Soldiers at a flower exhibition in Pyongyang yesterday, held as part of festivities to mark the 105th birth anniversary of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung. Pyongyang is set to celebrate another anniversary - the founding of its army on April 25 - and Japan's Defence Ministry has warned that "tension will continue for some time".PHOTO: REUTERS

But analysts say Pyongyang would probably not risk escalating tensions while US Vice-President visits Asia

Despite North Korea's failed missile launch yesterday - its second failed attempt this year - its nuclear threat remains undiminished and a sixth nuclear test could be next on the cards, said reports.

Japan's Defence Ministry has warned that "tension will continue for some time" given that the United States has sent a naval strike team to the Korean peninsula, and the North is set to celebrate the founding of its army on April 25.

But analysts in South Korea told The Straits Times that North Korea would probably not risk escalating tensions while US Vice-President Mike Pence visits South Korea and Japan this week to reaffirm America's commitment to the security of its two allies, and to discuss the North's nuclear issue.

The situation will "cool down" for a while, said Dr Choi Kang of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

While a nuclear test cannot be ruled out, he said, Pyongyang's failed missile test yesterday was proof that it needs more time to fine-tune its nuclear technology.

The missile exploded almost immediately after take-off, just hours before Mr Pence arrived in South Korea. While some reports claimed that North Korea deliberately set the test to fail, other analysts said it could be a sign that the US cyber warfare against North Korea is working effectively.

Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies noted that seven out of eight intermediate-range Musudan missile launches last year failed. He attributed the failures to malware implanted by the US as part of its cyber warfare against the North.

Pressure from North Korea's main ally China, which has urged both the US and the North against escalating tensions, also seems to be working.

Security analyst Wang Xiangsui of China's Beihang University said China is opposed to military conflict on the Korean peninsula and to North Korea being nuclearised.

He added that China has thus proposed the suspension of military exercises by South Korea and the US on the one hand, and the suspension of nuclear testing by North Korea on the other, so that both sides could start talks.

Over in South Korea, analysts said the North Korean leadership may adopt a wait-and-see approach as its neighbour prepares to elect a new president on May 9.

The election is set to be a race between liberal leader Moon Jae In of the main opposition Democratic Party and centre-left Mr Ahn Cheol Soo of the minor opposition People's Party.

As both parties advocate a friendlier stance towards North Korea, a win for either man could trigger a change in the hardline policy that has been maintained by the ruling conservatives in the past decade.

"North Korea will want to test the new South Korean administration, but it will be unwise for them to carry out further military escalation at this point in time," said Dr Choi.

Dr Bong said conducting a nuclear test so soon after the missile test yesterday would be "crossing the red line".

"If I were North Korea, I'd keep it as a last strategic card," he said.

• Additional reporting by China Bureau Chief Goh Sui Noi in Beijing

ST VIDEO

North Korea's missile launch fails just after lift off. http://str.sg/4Xtr

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2017, with the headline 'North Korea could still hold another nuclear test: Reports'. Print Edition | Subscribe