Following news reports Monday that North Korea could soon conduct its sixth nuclear test, just days after it carried out another such exercise, the Japanese government is bracing for the possibility of more provocations by Pyongyang.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun told a news briefing Monday that the North is ready to carry out another nuclear test at any time at the Punggye-ri site.
North Korea has so far conducted five tests at the site near its northeast coast. Moon said the North might use another unused tunnel at the test site.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Japan is losing patience with North Korea, which has now carried out two nuclear tests in the last nine months.
“This is an unprecedented situation that the North continues to test-fire missiles as well, despite international condemnation,” Abe told the Self-Defense Forces’ top brass on Monday.
His comments come after North Korea on Friday boasted about its fifth successful nuclear test and said that it will take further measures to bolster the quality of its nuclear arms, an indication it will conduct more nuclear tests and missile launches.
After Friday’s detonation, Abe also instructed his government to prepare new sanctions against the isolated regime, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Suga said Monday that the government is determining the “most effective timing” to introduce its sanctions while seeking additional, more stringent sanctions from the United Nations.
Japan is on high alert, especially because the latest nuclear test came only four days after North Korea test-fired what appeared to be three Nodong medium-range missiles, which have the ability to strike Japan, a sign that Pyongyang is rapidly advancing its nuclear capability.
Government officials, including Suga and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, said it is appropriate to assume that the North has mastered the technology of miniaturizing nuclear warheads so they can be mounted on missiles.
U.S. military experts are of the opinion that the North could develop the technology in order for its missiles to strike Washington and New York.
Hajime Izumi, an expert on North Korea and professor at Tokyo International University, said that the North wants to show off its nuclear arsenal while President Barack Obama is still in office.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said March 15 that it will test a nuclear warhead and test-fire various ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.
“I am sure the North wants to negotiate with the next U.S. president … they want to use it (nuclear capability) as a bargaining chip,” Izumi said.
Against this backdrop, Japan, the United States and South Korea are coordinating efforts to counter the North.
On Sunday, Sung Kim, Washington’s special representative for North Korea policy, said Tokyo and Washington have agreed to seek the “strongest possible measures” against the erratic regime, after meeting with Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau in Tokyo.
Sung will also travel to Seoul to further discuss bilateral and trilateral coordination among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea to deal with rapidly escalating North Korean threats.
The U.S. and South Korea are also scheduled to conduct a military drill next month near the west coast of the Korean Peninsula.
The U.N. Security Council, which met the day after the nuclear test, denounced the test and also said it will immediately begin working on a resolution.
Still, the North on Sunday scoffed at concerted efforts for further sanctions, calling them “laughable.”
The North has continued to trumpet advances in its nuclear capability amid increased sanctions.
Following January’s nuclear test, and what North Korea claimed was a rocket launch but which many saw as a cover for a ballistic missile test, Tokyo bolstered its sanctions against Pyongyang. Subsequently, the U.N. in March also adopted the toughest sanctions against the country since it began its nuclear testing in 2006.
The key will be how China, on which the North relies almost 100 percent for oil and food, will further cooperate.
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also cautioned that China has underestimated the North.
“Up until relatively recently, I think they were under the impression that they could control their neighbor and they didn’t want to crack down because they saw it as a useful card to play,” she said.
Yet experts say any cooperation on this front is unlikely given the mistrust between Beijing and Washington over U.S. plans to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea and China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.