SEOUL — When North Korea starts acting up, it clearly likes to have the spotlight all to itself. So while Pyongyang reportedly could carry out another nuclear test at any time, it may be waiting for just the right moment to make another big splash.
Analysts say a number of factors may have led the North to delay what would be its fourth nuclear test, if it were indeed planning one: the deepening crisis in Ukraine; stepped-up pressure from China; and the April 16 ferry sinking that has turned into one of South Korea’s worst peacetime disasters.
“South Korea’s interest in inter-Korean relations has been pushed aside, and because of that, North Korea is not likely to conduct its fourth nuclear test now,” said Ohm Tae-am of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
Ohm said Pyongyang also could be holding off on a test because it wants to have the full attention of Washington, which is now distracted by other geopolitical events.
“The U.S. has its eyes on the Middle East and Ukraine right now,” he said.
But prior to the events, such as the ferry sinking, that have grabbed the world’s attention, the North was stirring things up on the peninsula — exchanging fire across the disputed maritime border with the South in late March, and a couple of drones believed to belong to Pyongyang crash-landed in the South.
South Koreans are almost blasé about the latest cycle of North Korean provocations, instead turning their attention to the ferry disaster that claimed the lives of more than 200 people, mostly high school students. More than 90 people remain missing. The disaster has led to an outpouring of grief, and residents are angry at the government for its perceived slow response to the sinking.
The ongoing effort to recover bodies from the ship even overshadowed President Barack Obama’s visit to Seoul last weekend, but that didn’t stop Obama from sending a strong message to Pyongyang. Speaking to U.S. troops at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, Obama warned that aggression against the South would not be tolerated, saying: “We will not hesitate to use our military might to defend our allies and our way of life.”
The days following Obama’s visit were quiet, but on Tuesday, North Korea conducted another live-fire exercise near the disputed maritime border between the two countries.
A spokesman for the South Korean Ministry of National Defense described the action as a “hostile intention.”
He did not answer questions about the possibility of a North nuclear test, saying the ministry is not in a position to say when it might occur. However, he said that just the threat of a test might be part of a strategy of “psychological warfare” from Pyongyang.
The website 38 North — run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies — is unsure a nuclear test is imminent.
This week, an analysis on the website said commercial satellite imagery from Tuesday shows a high level of activity at the Punggye-ri site; all personnel and equipment were moved away from the site prior to the last nuclear test in 2013, according to 38 North’s analysis.
However, it is unknown whether a fourth test will follow the same pattern, and the analysis noted that predicting the timing of a test remains difficult.
Victor Cha, Korea chair for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said any new test would be a clear move away from a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear problem.
“The purpose of doing a fourth nuclear test is not to go back to the six-party talks,” he said, referring to stalled negotiations involving both Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and China. “The purpose of a fourth nuclear test is to improve their nuclear weapons capability.
“My concern is that if they feel ready to conduct a fourth nuclear test, they must feel that they have accomplished something new in terms of their nuclear weapons development,” he said. “That’s what worries me most.”
Pyongyang’s last test, in February 2013, had a considerably larger output than its first two. And while most experts say it is unlikely to have developed a bomb compact and sturdy enough to be launched in a missile warhead, others warn against underestimating the North’s capabilities, given its apparent keen dedication to developing its nuclear program.
Analysts say another test would likely lead to a push for tougher sanctions against Pyongyang, as well as an increase in pressure on China to rein in its neighbor. The South has reportedly tried to convince China to intervene with its provocative neighbor.
Previous sanctions have failed to dissuade Pyongyang. Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that for sanctions to be truly effective, “it will be critical for China to play a much stronger role.”
James Steinberg, former U.S. deputy secretary of state under Obama, said Beijing is becoming increasingly intolerant of Kim Jong Un’s behavior because of its destabilizing effect on regional security.
And while China exercises more influence over Pyongyang than any other country, particularly in light of its growing economic ties to the North, its sway remains limited.
“I would never believe that China would simply snap its fingers and North Korea would simply do what it says,” Steinberg said. “There’s no love lost between the two governments.”