North sends mixed messages on nuke issue
North Korea declared Monday that it had no intention of renouncing its nuclear development program should the United States continue to take “hostile actions.”
“We have no choice but to take countermeasures for self- defense as long as the United States persists in ratcheting up sanctions against us,” said an unidentified foreign ministry spokesman in an interview with the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The isolated state, however, also left some room for negotiation. The spokesman stated that the country had only been preparing for a “peaceful” satellite launch for scientific purposes, and therefore never planned for “military measures,” including nuclear tests.
The mixed message has puzzled experts who were forced to decipher the North’s coded language and figure out what precisely the isolated country had in mind. Experts have widely expected the Stalinist state to conduct a third nuclear test shortly after it lost face following its failed rocket launch last month. The country already conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
The confusion was evident when news agencies across the world gave widely different interpretations to the statement.
Reuters reported that North Korea was to “boost its nuclear deterrent,” while the Chinese Xinhua agency’s headline read “North says it has no intention of holding nuclear tests.” The Japanese Kyoto agency was more cautious and reported that the country was hinting at more tests if the United States stepped up pressure for sanctions.
Responses from foreign governments were mostly skeptical. “We’re going to be guided by not what they say, but what they do,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing.
The spokeswoman said she was not even clear on North Korea’s words, let alone its deeds. “I’m not sure what they meant by that…I’m not sure what they had in mind.”
South Korea also made it clear that its adversary’s latest overture will have little impact on the government’s policy. “We have no indication that the North is less likely to embark upon additional provocation,” a spokesman of the Ministry of Unification told reporters after the North made its announcement.
President Lee Myung-bak also refused to take stock of Pyongyang’s recent message. At a meeting with delegates from the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, he said that North Korea’s human rights was a more pressing issue than its nuclear development and thus should merit more outside attention.
He also stressed the importance of cooperation among states in dealing with the North. It was an implicit message that South Korea would not be dragged into the Stalinist state’s infamous “divide and conquer” tactics which try to exploit divisions within the international community. “We should send a strong and consistent message to the North,” Lee said at the meeting.
Some South Korean officials, however, cautiously predicted that the North was unlikely to opt for an immediate nuclear test. “In the past two tests, the North had already accumulated enough technical data on the weapon, so a third one is not really necessary,” a senior official said asking not to be identified.
“It also makes little political sense. The test would only further isolate the country in the international scene.”
Another official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs agreed that the North would sit back and see how the situation might develop rather than press for another test. “As always, the statement was very calculated and deliberately ambiguous,” the official said.
“In essence, the North is saying that they won’t conduct a further test for the time being, but launching a rocket is a different matter with which the outside world has no business.”
The North may not just sit idly by while the country waits for outside responses to its recent message. A satellite image unveiled on Wednesday showed large-scale construction around North Korea’s northeastern site of Musidan-ri.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said that the site’s upgraded facility could accommodate rockets larger than the recently-tested Unha (Galaxy). The image even showed a razed village on which a rocket assembly plant was being built. The picture seems to suggest that North Korea has no intention of giving up its rocket development, “peaceful” or otherwise.