Forceful response awaits if North Korea pushes ahead with nuclear test: US diplomat

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman speaks to media at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on June 7, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL – A senior United States diplomat has warned that North Korea would face a “swift and forceful” response if it were to push ahead with its seventh nuclear test, as signs emerged that the regime is preparing to do so.

“Any nuclear tests would be in complete violation of UN Security Council resolutions,” US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said in Seoul on Tuesday (June 7), after a meeting with her South Korean counterpart, Vice-Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong.

“The entire world will respond in a strong and clear manner. We are prepared.”
Ms Sherman, who is in town to discuss security issues such as North Korea’s rampant missile testing, also reiterated the Joe Biden administration’s willingness to re-engage with Pyongyang.

“The United States harbours no hostile intent towards the DPRK,” she said, referring to the regime’s official name Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We continue to urge Pyongyang to cease its destabilising and provocative activities and choose the path of diplomacy.”

She also urged North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to focus on coping with the country’s Covid-19 outbreak, instead of taking “provocative and dangerous” actions.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported 61,730 cases on Tuesday. This brings the total number to over 4.19 million since the first case was reported on May 12.

Ms Sherman’s visit came after 18 rounds of missile tests by Pyongyang this year - the latest being eight missiles fired on Sunday (June 5) - and as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported signs that the regime “may be preparing for a nuclear test”.

IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi on Monday (June 6) noted several telltale signs - such as advancing construction work at key nuclear test facilities at Yongbyon and the reopening of a tunnel entrance at a demolished nuclear test site at Punggye-ri.

“I call upon the DPRK to comply fully with its obligations under relevant UN Security Council resolutions, to cooperate promptly with the Agency... and to resolve all outstanding issues, especially those that have arisen during the absence of Agency inspectors from the country,” Mr Grossi said.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that the US remains concerned about the imminent nuclear test.

“I can assure you that it is a contingency we have planned for, and it has been a concerted topic of discussion with allies and partners,” he added.

South Korea’s new hardline President Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged firm and stern action against any North Korean provocation.

“We will make sure there isn’t a single crack in protecting the lives and property of our people,” he said as South Korea and the US fired eight missiles at various targets on Monday in a tit-for-tat move against North Korean missiles launched the previous day.

Experts noted that North Korean media has kept mum about several missile tests recently.

Ewha Womans University’s associate professor of international studies Leif-Eric Easley said the regime may be trying to “appear focused on the Covid crisis for its domestic audience”, but is in fact continuing to “prioritise military modernisation”.

“Firing many projectiles at once from various locations suggests Pyongyang is practising to overwhelm South Korea’s missile defences,” he said.

“The allies have quickly responded to the Kim regime’s recent missile firings... But current missile defences are insufficient against the expanding North Korean threat.

This calls not only for further investments in hardware but also a more multilayered approach coordinated with Japan and diplomatic efforts with Beijing to reduce arms race dynamics with Pyongyang.”

Dr Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank likened the silence to “the calm before the storm”, noting that North Korea is soon expected to declare the completion of its nuclear programme with a seventh nuclear test and to “show off its superiority in power confrontation with South Korea”.

He added that the North Korean leadership may have decided not to publicise its latest missile test due to pressure from Beijing.

China, he said, is concerned that the Yoon administration would decide to deploy an additional American missile shield due to escalating military tension on the Korean peninsula.

“As North Korea needs Chinese medicine and medical supplies to overcome the pandemic, it will have to partially accept China’s demands,” said Dr Cheong.

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