Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, left, talks to Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se before attending a parliamentary audit of ministries at the National Assembly, Monday. / Yonhap
No imminent sign of test yet: Defense minister
By Chung Min-uck
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said Monday that North Korea is ready to conduct another nuclear test at its Northeastern site of Punggye-ri.
"However, there is no imminent sign of a test," Kim said at a National Assembly interpellation session.
Kim also confirmed that Pyongyang was taking the basic steps necessary to carry out a missile launch at its Dongchang-ri complex on its western coast.
"These events can materialize at any time, when the North Korean leadership decides to do so," said Kim. "Looking back on past cases, missile launches and nuclear tests have been closely related."
"We'll watch closely and maintain readiness," he added.
The North carried out a long-range missile launch in December 2012, which was followed by its third and last nuclear test the following February.
Kim's comments come as speculation has been mounting that the reclusive regime will stage a military provocation following the December execution of the once-powerful Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a move seen by many experts as evidence of instability within the North Korean leadership.
The North, in past cases, relied on provocations to divert attention away from internal politics.
Of late, 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea-related news run by the U.S.-Korea Institute of Johns Hopkins University, said a possible KN-08 rocket engine test took place between late December and early January, citing satellite imagery to support the assertion.
The move is seen as an effort to master the technology to build a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile that will eventually be capable of reaching U.S. soil.
Meanwhile, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae, who also attended the interpellation session, denied speculation that the government was considering lifting its 2010 blanket sanctions on North Korea that virtually halted all inter-Korean exchanges, except for those related to the joint inter-Korean complex at Gaeseong.
"The priority is to resolve the cause behind why the May 24 measures were introduced," said Ryoo. The North "must take responsibility for the Cheonan incident."
Seoul has stuck to the position that the ban will not be lifted unless the North accepts responsibility for the sinking of the Cheonan warship and pledges not to engage in such provocations in the future.
The former Lee Myung-bak administration enacted the May 24 measures following the sinking of the Cheonan in March, 2010, which left 46 sailors dead. They halted most of the economic and personnel exchange and cooperation with the North.