A six-member Congressional delegation led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) arrived in South Korea on Wednesday amid renewed speculation that a North Korean nuclear test is imminent.
Ros-Lehtinen and five other members of Congress will be in the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) for four days, during which time they’ll meet with ROK Prime Minister Lee Myung-bak and two other senior level government officials, according to South Korean news sources.
The delegation will also visit the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides South Korea from its neighbor, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea. The DMZ, an anarchism of the Korean War, is the most heavily militarized border in the world with approximately 1,000,000 North Korean troops, 600,000 South Korean ones, and 37,000 U.S. military forces manning the 2.5 mile-wide border. Much of the 161 mile-long border is impassable due to electric barbed wire fences and a heavy allotment of land mines that are also relics of the Korean War.
President Barack Obama visited the DMZ in March when he was in South Korea for the Nuclear Security Summit.
The Congressional delegation’s arrival in South Korea coincided with heightened fears that North Korea is preparing for a third nuclear test. On Tuesday CNN reported that new activity consistent with preparations for a nuclear test were taking place at Punggye-ni, the site of the DPRK’s first and second nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. Both of those nuclear tests were immediately preceded by ballistic missile launches.
Analysts therefore first became concerned about a third nuclear test following Pyongyang’s failed rocket launch in April. Although the DPRK said the rocket launch was intended to put a satellite into orbit, the technology involved in that process is nearly identical to what is used to launch ballistic missiles.
Analysts concerns of a nuclear test are also driven by the fact that the DPRK is still in the midst of a leadership succession, following the death of its leader Kim Jong-Il late last year. Kim’s son and handpicked successor, Kim Jong-Un, is seen as having a tenuous grip on power.
Experts believe the April missile test was intended to bolster the younger Kim’s credentials at home. The test’s failure– which, breaking with past protocol, the DPRK regime admitted too– therefore provided an stronger rationale for Pyongyang to continue or increase its provocations.
“Before the launch, it was probable that North Korea would conduct a third nuclear test; now it is a virtual certainty,”Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute wrote after in April. “Having lost face, Kim Jong-un will be under tremendous pressure to double down in an attempt to reestablish international and domestic credibility.”
Earlier satellite images showing different activity at the nuclear site seemed to confirm these fears. After remaining completely silent on the subject, however, North Korea’s state media cited a government official as saying the DPRK has no immediate plans to conduct a third nuclear test, blaming the speculation on American propaganda. The same official did promise that Pyongyang would “bolster” its “nuclear deterrence” if the international community imposed additional sanctions on the North for its April missile test.
U.S. officials reacted skeptically to Pyongyang’s new claim, however. “We’re going to be guided not by what they say but what they do,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said when asked about the news report on Tuesday.
The five members of Congress traveling with Rep. Ros-Lehtinen in South Korea are Reps. Dan Burton (R-IN), Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), Jim Gerlach (R-PA), Brad Miller (D-NC) and Jean Schmidt (R-OH). The South Korean visit will conclude a seven-day trip to East Asia, which began on Sunday with a stop in Taiwan. While in Taiwan the six members of Congress participated in the second of inauguration of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou. President Ma, a member of the more pro-China Taiwanese political party, Kuomintang, won reelection in January with over 51% of the vote.
Last week the Senate approved an amendment to their version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that, if included in the final bill, would force the Obama administration to sell Taiwan 66 F-16 C/D multirole fighter jets. Last year the administration opted against selling Taiwan the F-16C/D jets, instead agreeing to update Taiwan’s existing F-16 A/B model fighter jets. Even before the Senate amendment, however, the administration had signaled it was reconsidering that decision.