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Is North Korea planning a nuclear test during Biden Seoul visit?

According to US intelligence, Pyongyang could be ready to conduct a seventh nuclear test after a flurry of missile launches in 2022.

Rafael Gómez
Update:
US warns of imminent North Korea nuclear test
KCNAvia REUTERS

The United States has issued a warning that North Korea could be preparing to conduct a nuclear test this month, ahead of a visit to South Korea by Joe Biden scheduled for 20 May to 22 May, during which the US president will hold talks with the country’s newly-elected President, Yoon Suk-yeol. Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who left her post on Friday to take up a position at MSNBC, said a day earlier: “The United States has concluded that North Korea could be ready to [conduct] a nuclear test as early as this month.” South Korea’s presidential office concurred with the views of US intelligence on Friday, according to the Yonhap news agency. If carried forward, a new nuclear test would be the North’s seventh overall. “We have shared this information with our allies,” Psaki added Thursday.

Kim Jong-un flexes military might ahead of Biden visit

Experts are largely in agreement that Pyongyang could be gearing up for a nuclear test after a flurry of missile launches in recent months. The North carried out a ballistic missile test on Wednesday 4 May, which was its 14th major weapons test of 2022, and in March gave the West its first view of a Hwasong-17 - an inter-continental ballistic missile with a range military analysts predict could hit any target in the contiguous United States - during a launch in March.

However, North Korea has not conducted a nuclear test since 2017 and any attempt to do so while Biden is in the region would be seen as a serious provocation by Kim Jong-un. Such a test would be “coherent with recent public declaration and destabilizing actions,” Psaki added.

Among the topics to be discussed between Biden and Yoon are the strategic alliance between the two countries, North Korea and other regional and international issues. However, Psaki did not confirm if Biden intended to visit the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, two countries the remain technically at war after the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea’s continued ballistic missile tests

Last Thursday, the North fired at least three short-range ballistic missiles in the direction of the Sea of Japan, the 15th launch so far this year of such weaponry. Pyongyang is also believed to be testing submarine-launched ballistic missiles, in violation of UN sanctions in place since 2006, designed to cut off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

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