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North Korea may plan for nuclear test next week, US envoy says

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un before a meeting with US President Donald Trump in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

North Korea might be considering conducting a nuclear test next week to coincide with national celebrations to mark the birthday of its deceased founder, the Biden administration’s point man for Pyongyang warned.

Sung Kim, the U.S.’s special envoy for North Korea, told reporters Wednesday that Pyongyang might be looking at some sort of display of its military power in conjunction with the April 15 anniversary of the birth of the late Kim Il Sung. An atomic test would be the first first globally in more than four years and add to concerns about the risks of nuclear brinkmanship amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“I don’t want to speculate too much, but I think it could be another missile launch, it could be a nuclear test,” he said in a conference call. The holiday celebrating the grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong Un, is one of the most important events on the North Korean calendar.

North Korea last detonated a nuclear bomb in September 2017, a few months before freezing tests of atomic devices and intercontinental ballistic missiles that could deliver a warhead to the U.S. mainland. Last month, Kim Jong Un declared an end to that self-imposed moratorium.

Discussions between the North Korean leader and then-President Donald Trump resulted in no tangible steps to wind down Pyongyang’s atomic arsenal. Sung Kim, who participated in those talks, said North Korea hasn’t responded to the Biden administration’s offers to resume the nuclear disarmament discussions.

Work restore tunnels at the Punggye-ri site, where North Korea conducted all six of its previous nuclear tests, appears to be underway, South Korean media including the DongA Ilbo newspaper have reported, citing satellite imagery analysis. Kim Jong Un suffered a public humiliation a decade ago, when a long-range rocket launched to celebrate his grandfather’s 100th birthday failed shortly after liftoff.

While Kim Jong Un has been signaling plans to resume major weapons tests for more than two years, the U.S.’s campaign to punish Russia over its invasion of Ukraine has reduced the risk of getting hit with hefty sanctions for such provocations. Any additional measures from the U.N. Security Council would require support from Russia, as well as China, which has led the criticism of Washington’s efforts to squeeze Moscow economically.

Although North Korea still languishes under a range of U.N. sanctions, it has continued to roll out an array of new missiles that would require smaller, more advanced warheads to pose a credible deterrent to the U.S. Such weapons could increase Kim’s leverage, if he decides to return to nuclear disarmament talks and ease the sanctions choking the economy.

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