North Korea is posturing to detonate its first nuclear bomb since 2018 as the world is busy dealing with Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s aggression in the South China Sea, making sanctions from the United Nations unlikely.

Reports from South Korean media company Dong-A Ilbo say signs of reconstruction have been recently identified at North Korea’s nuclear testing facility in Punggye-ri. North Korea watch group 38 North also drew the same conclusion, citing new excavation activity captured through commercial satellite imagery.

The site at Punggye-ri was used to conduct all six of North Korea’s previous nuclear tests. The facility was closed down in May 2018 as part of denuclearization and increased cooperation with the United States and South Korea. However, it is worth noting that some key buildings like the Command and Control Center were not demolished, which allows for the site to be restored.

Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site satellite photograph (USGS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Punggye-ri_Nuclear_Test_Site.jpg
Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site satellite photograph (USGS, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A nuclear test is expected to happen as early as next month in time for the 110th anniversary of the birthday of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Il Sung.

Reports of the suspected tests came flooding in after Kim Jong Un delivered a new warning to “imperialists” in a statement covered by North Korea’s state-sponsored news outlet, KCNA Watch.

“We must be strong under whatever circumstances to defend peace, accelerate socialist construction and be responsible for the security of the rising generations, free from any threat,” Kim Jong Un said, who reiterated his Party’s intent to bolster the country’s defensive capabilities.

“Only when one is equipped with the formidable striking capabilities, overwhelming military power that cannot be stopped by anyone, one can prevent a war, guarantee the security of the country and contain and put under control all threats and blackmails by the imperialists,” he added.

This development comes after North Korea launched its largest intercontinental ballistic missiles a few weeks ago. Experts believe Kim is using these armament efforts to gather support for the Party. This can be seen with the dramatized video production for one of their missile launches, which looks like they are trying to imitate a movie sequence.

“Kim regime is using these tests to unify the domestic public, give the people a sense of pride, and even justify their economic difficulties in the name of strengthening the country’s military capabilities,” 38 North non-resident fellow Rachel Minyoung Lee said.

Kim Jong Un’s initiative to relaunch his nuclear and ICBM programs comes on the backdrop of a growing rift between some of the key members of the United Nations.

Before, North Korea faced the possibility of sanctions if it attempted to expand its nuclear arsenal. However, with the United States’ campaign to punish Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, the risk of facing punishment, particularly from the UN, has been largely decreased.

“North Korea almost certainly views the rifts between the US and Russia, and the US and China, as a golden opportunity to conduct longer-range missile — and probably even nuclear — tests,” Rache Minyoung Lee said.

The US, Russia, and China are permanent members of the UN Security Council, a body that facilitates the preservation of international peace and security. The council can impose economic sanctions and even use force without the need to pass it through the UN General Assembly.

The catch is that all council members need to agree with a proposal before it can take any action. With at least three of the council members at odds, North Korea can feel safe from receiving any sanctions from the Security Council. This was already seen at the failed UN Security Council meeting last March 25 when they had discussed North Korea’s recent ICBM launch.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a dramatized video involving the launch of the Hwasong-17 (NK News). Source: https://twitter.com/nknewsorg/status/1507102890347077632
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a dramatized video involving the launch of the Hwasong-17 (NK News/Twitter)

Kim’s Enraged Sister

The influential sister of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Yo Jong, had some sour remarks against South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook after the latter made comments on the South’s ability to conduct preemptive strikes against the North.

“The senseless and scum-like guy dare mention a preemptive strike at a nuclear weapons state,” Kim Yo Jong said in a statement broadcast by state media. “South Korea may face a serious threat owing to the reckless remarks made by its defense minister.”

Kim Yo Jong is a senior official in the ruling Worker’s Party of North Korea and is in charge of diplomatic relations between Washington and Seoul. South Korea’s spy agency brands her as the country’s top 2 official behind Kim Jong Un.

Relations between the two Koreas briefly prospered in 2018 after North Korea uncharacteristically got in touch with the US and the South. It even got to the point where the two Korean leaders met in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, and Kim Yo Jong crossed over to the South to attend the opening of the Winter Olympics.

However, relations turned sour after nuclear talks between the North and the US collapsed in 2019. Soon, North Korea went back to its usual self, becoming unfriendly with its southern neighbor and the West.

“Kim Yo Jong’s remarks foreshadow another significant military test,” Professor at Ewha University in Seoul Leif-Eric Easley said to AP. “Similar to how Moscow and Beijing try to gaslight the world that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is somehow the fault of NATO, Pyongyang will blame its nuclear and missile advancements on the U.S.-South Korea alliance.”

Tension in the Korean peninsula is expected to rise with the coming of the new South Korean President, Yoon Suk-Yeol. Yoon, a conservative, deviates from his predecessor, outgoing President Moon Jae-in, and promises a hardline approach against North Korea.