September 9, 2017 2:32 am JST

North Korea's anniversary prompts watch for new provocation

Seoul, Washington on guard for missile launch, nuclear test Saturday

KENICHI YAMADA and TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA, Nikkei staff writers

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, fourth from left, examines what is said to be a miniaturized hydrogen bomb that can fit onto an intercontinental ballistic missile. © KCNA/Kyodo

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- The impending anniversary of North Korea's founding has the South speculating that Pyongyang will use the occasion Saturday to show off the capabilities of its nuclear or missile programs even as the U.S. and others push for more drastic action against the regime.

Pyongyang chose that date last year to conduct its fifth nuclear test. North Korea watchers see three main options this time around.

More of the same

A missile launch is believed to be the likeliest choice. It could occur around Saturday or Oct. 10, the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party, a source in South Korea's Unification Ministry said Friday.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon raised the possibility at an international meeting of defense ministers Thursday, noting speculation that North Korea could fire a rocket at a normal angle this time.

Pyongyang's two launches of Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles in July involved higher-than-usual "lofted" trajectories. Further testing is needed to confirm that the projectile can withstand the heat and pressure of atmospheric re-entry on a normal flight path. A successful test of this sort would intensify pressure on the U.S.

The North could fly an ICBM toward the northern Pacific Ocean, South Korea's National Intelligence Service told lawmakers.

The Workers' Party's Rodong Sinmun newspaper published a photo Aug. 23 containing diagrams for the Pukguksong-3, believed to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and the three-stage Hwasong-13 missile. Successful launches of either would add new threats to the North's arsenal.

Pyongyang instead could opt for another nuclear test -- its second this year, following the Sept. 3 trial of an apparent hydrogen bomb -- to further develop technology for miniaturizing nuclear warheads. Two of the four tunnels at the Punggye-ri site are ready for further tests at any time, the National Intelligence Service says.

Playing with fire

But the riskiest option for the North involves following through on a threat to send missiles near the American territory of Guam. The country announced Aug. 10 that it had devised plans to fire four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles into international waters 30km to 40km off the island's coast.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said he would hold off on such a move, in order to see how the U.S. responds. Carrying out the plan Saturday would give Kim an opportunity to demonstrate defiance against the "Yankees," further solidifying his authority at home.

Yet such a move may be interpreted as an attack on the U.S., which could retaliate with overwhelming force.

U.S. President Donald Trump hinted Thursday that military action against Pyongyang remains on the table. "I would prefer not going the route of the military," he told reporters, adding that "it will be a very sad day for North Korea" if he does.

But Trump's administration still prioritizes a diplomatic solution. To turn up the pressure, Washington is pushing for a new United Nations Security Council resolution that would ban all oil exports to North Korea, cutting off a lifeline for its economy and military. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has brought U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson on board and is lobbying other nations behind the scenes.

Some see Pyongyang refraining from major provocations while it awaits the next moves by the U.S. and China. North Korea also could be watching for the Security Council resolution, which Washington hopes to get adopted Monday.

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