A nuclear test by North Korea, which appears likely in the coming weeks, would be a “game changer” in the region and would receive a “response” from the United States, several senior officials in the American command in charge of the Asia-Pacific region.
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North Korea has conducted four ballistic missile tests in a week and is likely preparing to conduct a nuclear test after the next Chinese Communist Party congress, which begins Oct. 16, an Indo-Chinese Command official told some reporters. Pacific (IndoPacom).
“I think the possibility of a test is more likely a week or two after Congress,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
His assessment is in line with that of the South Korean intelligence services, for which this nuclear test, which would be the first since 2017, could take place between October 16 and the US midterm elections on November 7.
While stressing that no link had been made between the recent ballistic tests in Pyongyang and the possibility of a nuclear test, the head of the US fleet in the region, Admiral Sam Paparo, acknowledged that it was “an issue of very grave concern”.
“It would be very worrying if there was a reaction,” he added.
“This response would be in close consultation with our South Korean ally and consistent with our integrated deterrent doctrine. It would encompass all of the United States’ instruments of power,” he added: diplomatic, military and economic.
For the region’s air force chief, Gen. Ken Wilsbach, the notion that North Korea has a nuclear weapon is all the more concerning because, unlike other nuclear powers, the regime in Pyongyang does not view these types of weapons as a deterrent that will never be used.
“They have threatened to use these weapons against their neighbors and even against the United States. And that’s unusual,” he said. “The other countries that have these guns don’t talk like that, and that should worry everyone.”
A North Korean nuclear test would “undoubtedly turn the tide” in the region, General Wilsbach added. “That would worry many countries. I think it would worry even China and Russia.”
Under international sanctions for its weapons programs, North Korea adopted a new doctrine in early September that proclaimed it would never give up nuclear weapons.
The North Korean regime has tested nuclear bombs six times since 2006. The most recent and most powerful nuclear test came in 2017 with an estimated yield of 250 kilotons. Pyongyang mentioned a hydrogen bomb.
Satellite images have shown signs of activity in a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in recent months.
Pyongyang pledged to demolish the site in 2018 ahead of a historic summit between Kim Jong-un and then-US President Donald Trump, marking the beginning of a brief period of dialogue.
In the face of Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric, the United States and South Korea resumed joint exercises that had been suspended since 2018 due to COVID-19 and diplomatic warming between Seoul and Pyongyang.
US Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Seoul this week and toured the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas to highlight Washington’s “steadfast” commitment to defending South Korea against the North.
With about 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea, Washington is Seoul’s main security ally.