Although an underground nuclear test would not directly threaten the United States, it would raise the stakes for the Obama administration, which has been unable to curtail the North’s weapons program despite sanctions and short-lived attempts at dialogue.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the North’s threats are “needlessly provocative.”
“We judge North Korea by its actions,” Carney told reporters at his daily briefing. “Provocative acts like this are significant violations.”
Intelligence experts in Seoul and Washington have speculated for months that the secretive police state is preparing to conduct its third nuclear test, based on satellite photos showing activity at the North’s test site. Pyongyang’s state news agency also has made several opaque references about bolstering the nation’s “nuclear deterrent.”
The statement Thursday was the clearest sign yet of the North’s intentions, though it did not say when the threatened nuclear test might be carried out. The statement also had an unusually explicit focus on the United States, which Pyongyang described as “the sworn enemy of the Korean people.”
North Korea said it would retaliate against the United States with “force, not with words, as it regards jungle law as the rule of its survival.” As part of this show of force, it also pledged to launch long-range rockets, similar to the one it sent into orbit last month, which prompted the toughened U.N. Security Council sanctions.
“They have been hinting at [a nuclear test], I suppose, for some time,” said Glyn Davies, the Obama administration’s envoy for North Korea policy, who was in Seoul on Thursday. “We think that that would be a mistake, obviously. We call on North Korea, as does the entire international community, not to engage in any further provocations.”
North Korea has spent decades as East Asia’s chief provocateur — developing weapons, launching rockets, making and breaking denuclearization deals, threatening all-out war — and analysts admit that its rhetoric can often feel repetitive. But the country, the analysts say, is indeed becoming more dangerous.
The rocket that Pyongyang sent into orbit Dec. 12, according to South Korean analysis, was made largely with indigenous components and could be capable of reaching the United States. Although North Korea has not shown the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon enough to mount on a rocket, some security analysts say the country could hone such technology within several years. Scientists say nuclear tests are essential for any country that wants to miniaturize its nuclear devices.