released by the North Korea affairs website 38 North on Sep. 15. No signs of launch preparations were found in the image. (38 North)
North Korea is raising the alarm with threats of missiles (long-range rockets) and nuclear testing.
The tactics are being seen as part of an attempt to send messages to the US, South Korea, and the North Korean public ahead of an upcoming US-China summit in September, the Workers' Party anniversary celebration on Oct. 10, a South Korea-US summit on Oct. 16, and reunions of divided family members scheduled for Oct. 20-26.
Responding to questions from a Korean Central News Agency reporter on Sept. 15, the chief of North Korea's Atomic Energy Institute said the country was "constantly making qualitative improvements to various nuclear weapons and realizing continued innovations in research and production to ensure the reliability of the nuclear deterrent in all respects."
"If the U.S. and other hostile forces persistently seek their reckless hostile policy towards the DPRK and behave mischievously, the DPRK is fully ready to cope with them with nuclear weapons any time," the report continued.
The message was seen as warning that North Korea could embark on additional nuclear tests if the political situation deteriorates.
The comments come after remarks on the evening of Sept. 14 from the director of the country's National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), also in response to questions from a KCNA reporter.
"The satellites of 'military first' North Korea will continue to kick away the earth and soar high in the blue sky at the times and places determined by our party's central authorities," the NADA chief said at the time.
The remarks were seen as indicating Pyongyang's plans to hold a long-range rocket launched for "satellite" purposes for the Oct. 10 anniversary.
"There is a greater chance now that a long-range rocket launch by North Korea would lead to the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution for sanctions, which would then lead North Korea to conduct a fourth nuclear test in protest," said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Unification Strategy Studies department at the Sejong Institute.
But the fact that North Korea did not provide before-the-fact announcements of its plans in the cases of its Kwangmyongsong-2 and Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite launches in 2009 and 2012, respectively, led some analysts to suggest it may be leaving some margin to cancel or delay the launch depending on how the situation progresses.
"There was a sense there of encouraging the US and China to change their North Korea policy and enter dialogue," argued University of North Korean Studies professor Yang Moo-jin.
If North Korea does go through with a nuclear test or long-range rocket launch, the result could be a death blow to the recent hard-won opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations with separated family reunions and intergovernmental talks. It could be possible to approach the divided family issue separately.
"We need to deal with North Korea's provocations and humanitarian concerns as separate issues," argued Chang Yong-seok, a senior research at the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.
"In February 2014, the divided family reunions went ahead even while South Korea and the US were holding joint military exercises," Chang noted.
"We need to set a precedent of continuing to address humanitarian issues, whatever the political or military situation."
On Sept. 15, the North and South Korean Red Cross chapters met at Panmunjeom for a scheduled exchange of confirmation requests for the status of divided family members for the reunions. President Park Geun-hye also addressed the issue in remarks during a Cabinet meeting the same day.
"Both sides need to hold Red Cross talks to ensure that we can confirm the status for all family members, have correspondence exchanges, and allow for regular meetings and hometown visits," Park said.
Seoul could be even more proactive with its "preventive diplomacy" efforts. In particular, they advocate holding intergovernmental talks before Oct. 10 in an effort to talk North Korea out of going through with its long-range rocket launch.
"If North Korea decides not to launch any long-range rocket and participates in an effort before year's end to confirm the status of all divided family members, then the South Korean government ought to work in some way to avoid letting inter-Korean relations become adversarial again - for example, by holding negotiations with plans for resuming tourism at Mt. Keumgang or lifting the May 24 Measures before Jan. 1 of next year," said Cheong Seong-chang. The May 24 measures are a ban on inter-Korean trade and exchange that was imposed by Seoul in 2010 after the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan warship.
Others say China and the US should also be proactive with a mixture of both stern warnings to Pyongyang as well as "softer" measures to prevent future provocations by sending senior envoys or announcing a commitment to future North Korea-US dialogue, with Seoul exercising its diplomatic skills to encourage them in their efforts.
By Son Won-je and Kim Ji-hoon, staff reporters
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