South Korean officials said Thursday that there have been continual movements of personnel and vehicles at North Korea's main nuclear test site, but ruled out the possibility that the country is preparing its third atomic bomb test anytime soon.
The assessment came shortly after the mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Thursday that Pyongyang may be preparing another nuclear test, citing "brisk" activities at its atomic test site in the northeastern county of Kilju.
The paper, citing an unidentified South Korean government source, said a U.S. spy satellite detected such activities and that North Korea could detonate a nuclear device in three months.
The North may have intentionally let those activities be detected by the U.S. and South Korean authorities to force them to soften hardline policies and to wrest concessions and aid, the paper said. The communist country may also be preparing a bomb test to bolster its military capability amid moves to transfer power from leader Kim Jong Il to his third and youngest son, Kim Jong Un, it said.
South Korean officials, however, denied that the North was preparing a nuclear test soon, saying personnel and vehicle movements have been continuously detected for more than a year at the site, where the North conducted two bomb tests in recent years.
"No concrete evidence that North Korea is preparing a third nuclear test has been found," presidential spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung told reporters, according to her office.
Another government official said the movements at the site could be seen as maintenance, while the third official, from the Defense Ministry, noted that South Korean and U.S. authorities have been keeping a close watch on North Korean nuclear facilities. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
The U.S. military command in Seoul said Thursday that it could not comment on the Chosun Ilbo report.
North Korea carried out its first-ever nuclear test in 2006 and the second, more powerful test blast last year, inviting widespread international sanctions.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Thursday that he was aware of reports about a possible new nuclear test but couldn't comment because they "touch on intelligence matters."
"But it really hasn't changed our position vis-a-vis North Korea. We've said that all along that they need to adhere to their commitments, and they also need to refrain from provocative actions. And another nuclear test would certainly fall under the rubric of provocative actions," Toner said in Washington.
North Korea walked out of six-nation disarmament talks on its nuclear program last year to protest international condemnation of a prohibited long-range rocket launch. The country has recently expressed its willingness to rejoin the talks _ involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
"Chances for North Korea doing a third nuclear test aren't high," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
Such a provocation "would be too much of a burden" for the impoverished country, which urgently needs outside aid to help provide a livelihood for its people as it tries to maintain stability while it undergoes its succession process, Kim said.
Tension on the peninsula spiked following March's deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on Pyongyang. North Korea flatly denies attacking the vessel and killing 46 sailors and has warned that any punishment would trigger war.
Recently, however, the North has taken a series of conciliatory gestures such as releasing South Korean and American detainees and proposing the resumption of stalled joint projects with South Korea. Seoul has offered to send relief aid to flood victims in the North.
Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Washington contributed to this report.