SEOUL — Military officials expect North Korea to conduct a nuclear test in the “near future” following its successful rocket launch this week, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said Friday.
A ministry spokesman said the MND did not know when a test might take place nor whether a statement from the North’s state-run media, indicating leader Kim Jong Un’s support for further development of the country’s space program, pointed toward additional rocket launches soon.
The Korean Central News Agency statement, issued Thursday, said Kim “emphasized” the country should continue launching satellites “now and forever, in order to develop our country’s scientific technology and economy.”
When North Korea tried to launch a rocket in April, it broke up soon after liftoff and exploded.
North Korea claims Wednesday’s launch put a satellite intended for peaceful observation purposes into orbit, though the U.S. believes it really was a test of ballistic missile technology that eventually could enable Pyongyang to strike the continental U.S. with a nuclear warhead.
It also may have been aimed at consolidating Kim’s clout within the powerful military as he prepares for next week’s first anniversary of his assumption of power following his father’s death.
The KCNA statement indicated Kim was heavily involved in the launch, arriving at the control center a half-hour before liftoff and giving a written order at 8 a.m. for the Kwangmyongsong-3, or Shining Star-3, rocket to be fired up.
He “learned about preparations for the launch” and “keenly observed the whole processes,” KCNA said.
North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 that resulted in sanctions and two United Nations Security Council resolutions the reclusive communist country, which has a long history of brinksmanship.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that a third nuclear test “would be a grave error that’s just going to isolate them further.”
She declined to comment on news reports that poverty-stricken North Korea had lost control of the satellite, and said Kim’s desire to launch more showed a lack of concern for his people.
“He has a chance, as a new leader, to take his country back into the 21st century, to take it back into integration with the region and with the world, but he’s making the wrong choices right now,” she said.
The MND recovered a roughly 25-foot piece of debris from the rocket at 12:26 a.m. Friday in the Yellow Sea, about 100 miles from Gunsan, home to Kunsan Air Base. Inscribed with the rocket’s name, “Unha,” it is believed to be a fragment of a first-stage fuel container, the MND said.
A joint investigation team that will include an unspecified number of U.S. experts will analyze the debris in hopes of learning more about North Korea’s missile program.