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North Korea's Nuclear Test

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

North Korea: During this Watch, on 12 February in North Korea, the US Geological Survey reported seismic activity in North Korea that could represent a man-made detonation.


The US Geological Survey said the 4.9 magnitude tremor occurred at a depth of 1km. It put the epicenter close to North Korea's nuclear test site. Chinese, Japanese and South Korean earthquake and meteorological agencies also detected the event. The Chinese Earthquake Administration described it as "a suspected explosion."

South Korean forces are on alert. Japan has convened its national security council.

On 12 February, a meeting of the Korean Workers' Party politburo "called for staging an all-out action of high intensity," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported, but did not mention a nuclear test. The politburo also "stressed the need to continue launching satellites ... and powerful long-range rockets."

Comment: North Korea most likely has attempted its third nuclear test. The weight of analytical opinion last week favored a detonation on 12 February to upstage the State of the Union Address by the US President and to honor Kim Chong-il's birthday on the 16th.

A review of selected North Korean behavior since 5 February is instructive.

Real indicators. On 5 February, a radio station run by North Korean defectors reported that North Korean authorities closed Kilchu County to all movement. Kilchu County is the location of the nuclear test site. The North did the same thing, according to residents of the area, before the 2006 detonation in the same county. Military Policemen were reported to be barring all traffic and were refusing to accept bribes.


Comment: The significance of the travel ban lies in its economic impact and timing. All trade through this county has ceased, causing real economic costs and local hardship. More importantly, the closure stranded many people in adjacent counties during the Lunar New Year holiday last weekend, when it is the Asian custom to visit families and bring food.

The costs signify serious preparations. They do not mean that a detonation is inevitable, but it does mean that it is highly likely barring a black swan event. The payment of significant civilian economic costs is always a reliable indicator of real and serious intentions by national leaders in any state. In this case, the high-cost civilian indicators are diagnostic and predictive… even for North Korea.

Propaganda deception. On 8 February, the North Korea propaganda weekly, Tongil Sinbo published, "The US and hostile forces jumped to conclusions that the republic (i.e., North Korea) is planning the third nuclear test, citing their hypothesis and argument."

The weekly said the US and other countries know little about what important state measures North Korea will take and whether the measures involve a nuclear test or anything worse.

Comment: The article did not deny Allied judgments that the North was planning a nuclear test. It belittled them for being uninformed. This article was a deliberate, albeit poor, attempt at dissembling.


Physical deception. South Korean government sources reported on 11 February that North Korea has pulled manpower and equipment from its nuclear test site. No personnel or equipment moves have been observed since Friday, 8 February.

"When manpower and equipment are withdrawn, it can be an indication that a nuclear test is imminent," a source said. "We're watching the developments closely to know whether a nuclear test is imminent or it's another deceptive tactic."

Comment: Prior to the space launch in December North Korea went through the motions of disassembling the rocket, as part of its deception plan. The apparent abandonment of the test site is most likely a similar deception move.

Iran: "If you take away weapons, I will personally talk to you," President Ahmadi-Nejad said while addressing a rally to mark the 34th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on 10 February. 

Ahmadi-Nejad also said that Iran will never agree to drop the nuclear program. "I announce to them: this will never happen." He said Iran has already obtained nuclear energy and thus, it is already meaningless to oppose Iran. "Now it is not time to engage in a conflict and oppose us. The best thing for you and us is to cooperate," he said.

Comment: Ahmadi-Nejad is a lame duck. Presidential elections are due this year and he cannot run again. His offer of personal talks serves no point. Plus, a careful reading shows Ahmadi-Nejad did not in any way contradict the statement by Supreme Leader Khamenei last week in which he pointedly rejected the US invitation to talk about the nuclear program.


Egypt: Update. 11 February is the second anniversary of the overthrow of Mubarak. Security forces sprayed anti-Mursi protesters with water hoses and tear gas outside the presidential palace.

The forces were trying to disperse a small crowd of protesters after some of them attempted to cross a barbed wire barrier meant to block them from the palace gate. Some protesters chanted: "The people want to bring down the regime." Others threw stones.

During this Watch, more clashes occurred near the presidential palace in Cairo.

Tunisia: Media sources reported an agreement is imminent on a new national unity government for Tunisia to settle the political crisis following the murder of a prominent opposition politician last week. Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda Movement, said that a new government is expected to be announced in two or three days.

Comment: Democracy should have come more easily to Tunisia than to almost all other Arab states because of its tradition of secular, cosmopolitan tolerance. The Islamists, even so-called moderates, have overreached here as in Egypt. Tunisian cities do not seem as unstable as Egyptian cities, but Islamist governments in both states have shown no ability to improve economic conditions.

Mali: Update. A second suicide bomber detonated at an army checkpoint in Gao on Sunday. On Monday, French and Malian forces went house-to-house to root out Islamist fighters who had returned late last week.


End of NightWatch ###

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