SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea is digging a tunnel at its main nuclear test site in a move that a South Korean intelligence official believes indicates that it could be readying for a third nuclear test between March and May of 2011, a Korean newspaper reported on Wednesday.
The tunnel is currently 500 metres long, the South Korean official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, about half the length needed to conduct a test.
Here are some question and answers about the risks and benefits of a third North Korean nuclear test:
COULD THE NORTH BE READYING FOR ANOTHER TEST?
Yes. A U.S. satellite in October detected increased activity at the test site in Punggye-ri that suggested North Korea could be preparing for a test or carrying out maintenance. The construction of a tunnel, if true, adds weight to suggestions that preparations could be underway for a test.
Having shelled a South Korean island last month, killing four people, Pyongyang has already secured the world’s attention and prompted frantic shuttle diplomacy.
The report followed another newspaper dispatch saying that North Korea had three to four sites at which it could enrich uranium. That meant it would have additional material from which to produce nuclear weapons and that U.S. nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker had seen a far larger and more sophisticated reprocessing facility than he believed North Korea had last month.
Pyongyang could try to use the test threat to win concessions or as leverage to push for a resumption of stalled aid-for-disarmament talks. It has often used this tactic.
There appears to have been a steady ratcheting up of the visibility of the North’s programme and Wednesday’s report coincided with a visit to Pyongyang of Bill Richardson, a U.S. state governor who has been to the North several times.
While any test appears to be some months away, experts say it will be difficult to determine that a test will happen until right before it occurs.
Equally, experts say, the North could carry out other provocations such as conducting missile tests.
WHAT DOES NORTH KOREA HOPE TO ACHIEVE WITH A NUCLEAR TEST?
North Korea said in September it wanted to bolster its “nuclear deterrent” in response to the threat posed by the United States. By conducting a third test, it would improve its ability to make nuclear weapons but also decrease its supply of fissile material, thought to be enough for six to eight nuclear bombs, experts say.
Experts say the North’s inexperienced and young leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un, might try to boost his hardline credentials within the military by carrying out an act of brinkmanship. Previous nuclear tests have been trumpeted at home, rallying the masses around the state’s military-first rule.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF A THIRD NUCLEAR TEST?
A third test would infuriate the North’s main ally and benefactor China, which strongly condemned the first two tests.
Beijing sent a senior envoy to Pyongyang last week and said China and North Korea had both embraced calls for “restraint” on the peninsula. Active moves towards a third nuclear test would not appear to tie in with “restraint.”
According to media reports, Beijing was informed by Pyongyang less than half an hour in advance of its second test and was greatly angered and offended because it blatantly disregarded China’s calls for denuclearisation. Those calls were repeated during the recent visit to Pyongyang.
The North is more reliant than ever on China due to toughened sanctions following the sinking of a South Korean warship this year and the island shelling.
Another test would provoke more international sanctions. The question is whether China would continue to turn a blind eye, or join the sanctions.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS TO INVESTORS?
Past nuclear tests have had little impact on financial markets, which have tended to ignore Pyongyang’s rhetoric.
However, since the shelling of the island, commentators say risks to investment sentiment have grown. Increased harsh rhetoric from the South Koreans that they would strike back in the event of another attack have heightened those risks, although it is hard to see Seoul taking tough action.
Editing by Ron Popeski
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