North Korea also has more practical military and political reasons for wanting to conduct the test in defiance of diplomatic efforts to persuade its new leader, Kim Jong-un, to call off the project.
“There’s a military imperative,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Mr. Fitzpatrick says the North’s first two underground nuclear tests, in October 2006 and again in May 2009, “did not go very well.”
Although North Korea did manage to explode nuclear devices on both occasions, they were so small as to have been viewed by scientists elsewhere as a possible failure.
North Korea’s top priority now is to be able to miniaturize a warhead in order to send it to a target on a missile rather than drop it as a bomb from a plane. “They want to get something small enough to fit on a Rodong,” says Mr. Fitzpatrick, at a conference here staged by the Asan Institute, a local think tank financed by the Hyundai business empire.
Yet another issue is the need to convince the North Korean people that Kim Jong-un is a strong leader, capable of controlling a military establishment with 1.2 million troops while solidifying his power over the country.
“Having failed on the missile, they’ve got to do something that goes boom,” says Fitzpatrick.
The decibel level of the North Korean rhetoric is beginning to raise alarm here among analysts who fear the North may challenge South Korea with incidents to which the South will have to respond militarily.