SEOUL – President Lee Myung Bak believes North Korea could detonate multiple devices when it goes ahead with a nuclear test expected in the coming weeks or even days.
In an interview published Tuesday in the Chosun Ilbo daily, the outgoing president also acknowledged the huge challenge the international community faces in seeking to wean Pyongyang off its nuclear weapons program.
The North has signaled that it will carry out a “higher level” nuclear test very soon, in a defiant response to U.N. sanctions imposed after its successful December long-range rocket launch.
Lee said “higher-level” suggests Pyongyang might attempt to detonate several devices.
“North Korea is likely to carry out multiple nuclear tests at two places or more simultaneously” in order to maximize scientific gains from an event that will be globally condemned, Lee said.
Experts around the world are gearing up to analyze any test for what it might reveal about the current status of the North’s weaponization program.
Of particular interest will be any sign that its scientists have succeeded in developing a warhead that can be fitted onto a missile. “If the North produces miniaturized weapons that can be used as warheads on missiles, it would really pose a threat,” Lee said.
Lee has only a few weeks left in office at the end of a term marked by an almost total freeze of contacts between the two Koreas.
In his interview, he suggested that diplomatic efforts will make little headway in bringing about a significant policy shift in Pyongyang.
“I think it is difficult to persuade the North regime to give up the nuclear path,” he said.
Some predict the test will come before the Lunar New Year on Sunday, while others suggest it will be timed to coincide with the birthday of Kim Jong Un’s father, the late Kim Jong Il, on Feb. 16.
On Monday, the South Korean and U.S. militaries kicked off three days of exercises off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast that involve live-fire exercises, naval maneuvers and submarine detection drills.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the maneuvers are part of regular joint military training that the allies had scheduled before the latest nuclear tensions began. But the training, which involves a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine, could still send a warning against possible North Korean provocation, a South Korean military official said.