September 4, 2017 3:59 am JST  (Updated September 4, 2017 11:29 am JST)

North Korea demands recognition as nuclear power

Kim Jong Un makes dangerous bet with powerful test

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei Seoul bureau chief

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from left, in a screenshot from a news bulletin broadcast by Korean Central TV on Sept. 3. © Kyodo

SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a dangerous bet to ensure his government's continued existence by conducting the nation's sixth nuclear test.

Persistence in seeking international recognition as a nuclear power led Kim to blatantly ignore the U.S., which had sought dialogue with the aim of having Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons development program.

North Korea must "dynamically conduct the campaign for successfully concluding the final-stage research and development for perfecting the state nuclear force," the official Korean Central News Agency said Sunday, describing Kim's marching orders on his visit to a nuclear weapons laboratory to inspect a hydrogen bomb that can be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile. The test came about six hours later.

Periodic tests are needed to realize precise control of the explosion and miniaturization technology required to put an atomic bomb in a missile warhead. The North conducted nuclear tests every three to four years until its fourth test in January 2016, but the gap has since narrowed to eight months and then a year.

North Korea "has raised the capabilities of its nuclear weapons to the maximum degree, to a level at which it would be recognized as a nuclear power," said Moon Sung-mook of the South's Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, noting that the strength of the seismic tremors caused by the blast suggests that the country very likely succeeded in detonating a hydrogen bomb.

Pyongyang, which has indicated that recognition as a nuclear power is a prerequisite for negotiations with Washington, has taken a step toward this goal, according to Moon.

If it has indeed successfully tested a hydrogen bomb that can be mounted on an ICBM, then the threat to the U.S. increases dramatically. Some experts believe that the North is spending a large chunk of state resources on nuclear weapons development even as economic sanctions crimp its finances. They see Pyongyang's strategy as entering into arms control talks with Washington after completing development.

On Thursday, a few days after the North fired a missile over Japan, the U.S. conducted an exercise over the Korean Peninsula that involved B-1B strategic bombers and F-35B stealth fighters -- the first simultaneous deployment of both aircraft in the area. Pyongyang objected strongly to the drill, since the planes are expected to be used in any attacks on key North Korean facilities or a decapitation strike.

Last year, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on the Sept. 9 anniversary of its founding. A former senior official of the ruling Workers' Party reportedly says Kim has ordered that preparations for war with the Americans be completed by Sept. 9, 2018, when the country will celebrate its 70th anniversary.

The possibility of additional provocations from the North on this year's holiday has the U.S., Japan and South Korea on high alert.

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