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Tensions Escalate on Korean Peninsula as North Prepares Rocket Launch and Restarts Nuclear Reactor
A 2012 Satellite image of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre in North Korea
This week’s snapshot focuses on the recent escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. On 14SEP, North Korean state media suggested it will fire a long-range rocket around a national anniversary next month. Undeterred by swift international condemnation, the next day it announced its main nuclear complex was working to improve the “quality and quantity” of weapons which it could use against the United States at “any time.”
News summary of events during the week of 14SEP15 – 21SEP15
- 14SEP: North Korea said it is in the final stages of preparing to launch “a series of satellites” into space. (Kyodo)
- 14SEP: China’s Foreign Ministry said the country will host a nuclear seminar to pressure Pyongyang towards denuclearization. (UPI)
- 14SEP: South Korea urged North Korea not to launch any more ballistic missiles following Pyongyang’s announcement of its plan to launch a series of satellites. (Kyodo)
- 15SEP: North Korea said it has improved the “quantity and quality” of its nuclear weapons after restarting a nuclear reactor. (AFP)
- 15SEP: China called for North Korea to “act with caution” and refrain from elevating tensions in the region. (Kyodo)
- 15SEP: European Council President Donald Tusk called on North Korea to cease all activity pertaining to its space and ballistic missile programs. (Yonhap)
- 15SEP: The White House urged North Korea to refrain from “irresponsible provocations” that could escalate regional tensions. (AFP)
- 16SEP: American experts warned that North Korea could be separating isotopes used to manufacture more sophisticated nuclear bombs. (AFP)
- 16SEP: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the United States and China will increase cooperation in addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. (Yonhap)
- 16SEP: South Korea said it will respond “firmly” and in conjunction with the international community if North Korea carries out planned provocations. (EFE)
- 16SEP: US Secretary of State John Kerry said it may take more than sanctions to halt North Korea’s nuclear program. (AP)
- 17SEP: The US Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear said that additional sanctions were a possible response to any North Korea missile launch and the commander of US forces in the Pacific Admiral Harry Harris said he favored deployment of a US anti-missile system in South Korea. (Reuters)
- 18SEP: South Korea said it has increased bilateral cooperation with China aimed at preventing North Korea from launching a long-range rocket. (Yonhap)
- 19SEP: Chinese FM Wang Yi said the multilateral talks involving China, the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea are still the best way to address the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. (AP)
- 20SEP: A source revealed South Korean President Park will call for global attention to North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues at her upcoming UN General Assembly address. (Yonhap)
Sample of Twitter handles regarding escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula
- @AlastairGale – Alastair Gale, WSJ Korea bureau chief
- @KelseyDav – Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association
- @PMCroninCNAS – Patrick Cronin, Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security (CNAS)
- @dpinkston – Daniel Pinkston, visiting fellow, Conflict Studies Center, Babes-Bolyai University
- @newsjean – Jean H. Lee, veteran foreign correspondent and expert on North Korea
Sample of Third Party Validators regarding escalating tensions on Korean Peninsula
Melissa Hanham, researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
“We can definitely say that they are moving ahead and are continuing to grow their nuclear stockpile. This, paired with the announcement of a long-range rocket launch, suggests that they’re making plans for the 70th anniversary.”
– North Korea says it has restarted its nuclear facilities, threatens the U.S., Washington Post, 15SEP15
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the east Asia non-proliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies
“There is a ton of vehicle traffic around the reactor which supports the hypothesis that [the North Koreans] are taking fuel out and getting ready for reprocessing. If I had to guess, they are stepping up a reprocessing campaign, and then will do a launch, and when we complain they will respond with a nuclear test. They delight in surprise.”
– North Korea’s renewed nuclear threat keeps experts guessing, The Guardian, 15SEP15
Koh Yu Hwan, professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University
“[North Korea] is sending a message to the U.S. that its nuclear threat will only get worse if the country continues to be treated with sanctions and pressure rather than with negotiations. It’s North Korea’s traditional playbook: First start a crisis with words before actually making action.”
– N. Korea Resumes ‘Normal Operations’ at Yongbyon Nuclear Facility, Bloomberg, 15SEP15
Choi Gang, deputy chief of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies
“If North Korea launches a long-range rocket and claims it is a satellite, China will be in a difficult position to condemn it. However, if North Korea conducts a nuclear test, China has no option but to take it as a clear provocation and adopt a stronger measure against North Korea.”
– What’s Behind Pyongyang’s Statements on Possible Nuclear Test?, Voice of America, 17SEP15
Jingdong Yuan, specialist on Asia-Pacific security at University of Sydney
“It’s hard to anticipate drastic policy changes such as a complete cut-off of aid because limiting the impacts of uncertain developments in North Korea remains a key consideration for Beijing.”
– China to respond firmly to any North Korea nuke test, Associated Press, 18SEP15
Sample of open source research conducted by TRG analysts related to escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula
1. North Korea Says It Is Bolstering Its Nuclear Arsenal
Media: New York Times
Byline: CHOE SANG-HUN
Date: 15 September 2015
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said on Tuesday that it was improving its nuclear arsenal in both “quality and quantity,” reaffirming that the country’s main nuclear complex, including its only disclosed uranium-enrichment plant, was in full operation.
North Korean scientists and engineers have made innovations “to guarantee the reliability of the nuclear deterrent in every way by steadily improving the levels of nuclear weapons with various missions in quality and quantity,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted the director of the North’s Atomic Energy Institute as saying.
2. North Korea Says It Has Restarted Its Main Nuclear-Bomb Plant
Media: Wall Street Journal
Byline: Alastair Gale
Date: 16 September 2015
SEOUL—North Korea said it restarted its main plant for producing nuclear bombs, backing experts’ assessments that satellite imagery shows the facility to have been at least partly active for about two years.
Tuesday’s report from North Korea’s state media adds to concerns that the isolated nation is pressing ahead in sharpening its nuclear threat. A day earlier, Pyongyang indicated it may soon launch a long-range rocket.
3. China to respond firmly to any North Korea nuke test
Media: Associated Press
Byline: Christopher Bodee
Date: 18 September 2015
BEIJING — If North Korea launches a rocket into space or conducts a nuclear test in the coming weeks, as observers suspect it may, China is certain to respond angrily, and perhaps with an unprecedented level of economic punishment. The question is whether North Korea can be swayed even by its most important ally.
China, which fought on North Korea’s side in the 1950-53 Korean War and remains its biggest trading partner and source of assistance, is thought to have the most leverage of any nation over Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian country.
4. U.S. keeping a close eye on North Korean satellite launch site
Media: Los Angeles Times
Byline: W.J. HENNIGAN AND BRIAN BENNETT
Date: 19 September 2015
US intelligence analysts are scrutinizing a newly modified North Korean satellite launch facility but see no imminent threat despite the reclusive government’s latest threats of nuclear attack against the United States.
U.S. officials say North Korean crews have upgraded the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in recent months by building new rail tunnels to move equipment and new buildings where a long-range ballistic missile could be assembled.
5. S. Korea, Russia to hold high-level security dialogue
Media: Yonhap (South Korea)
Date: 20 September 2015
SEOUL, Sept. 20 (Yonhap) — South Korea and Russia are expected to hold their first high-level security dialogue, government sources said Sunday, amid growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea ahead of a key anniversary next month.
Nikolai Patrushev, a close aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is likely to visit South Korea before heading to Japan late this month, according to the sources asking not to be named.