More than two months have passed since North Korea held one of its missile tests - the longest period of tranquility this year, although it may be ending soon: South Korea’s National Intelligence Service warned on Monday that it has detected suspicious activity at the North’s missile research facility – the latest sign that another test may occur by the end of the year. South Korean intelligence has on more than one occasion captured spy satellite images of the North Korean military transporting equipment from the North’s missile facility near Pyongyang. While security analysts speculated at the time that these movements could portend another missile test, none have materialized.
However, earlier today, Yonhap reported that South Korean intelligence believe the North recently carried out what’s called a missile engine test. Spy satellites spotted vehicles briskly moving toward the facilities, according to Yi Wan-young, a member of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee, which was briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. All of this suggests North Korea may conduct additional missile tests this year to help polish its long-range missile technology and ramp up the threat against the US. The South’s spy agency said it’s closely monitoring these developments.
As a reminder, the North hasn’t tested a missile since Sept. 15, when it launched a medium-range missile over the Northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The North conducted its sixth and most recent nuclear test on Sept. 3.
Still, the North’s only nuclear test site appears to be undergoing needed repairs, and will likely remain unusable for the time being. While the third tunnel at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear complex remains ready for another detonation “at any time”, construction has only recently resumed at a fourth tunnel, leaving it vulnerable to collapse if the North were to conduct another test. Some have speculated that the North is holding off on another nuclear test under pressure from Beijing.
Teams of Chinese and US scientists have warned that Punggye-ri is suffering from “tired mountain syndrome” – meaning another test could cause the mountain to cave in, releasing a deadly plume of radiation into the atmosphere. Last month, a tunnel collapse at the facility killed more than 200 North Korean laborers.
“The agency is closely following the developments because there is a possibility that North Korea could fire an array of ballistic missiles this year under the name of a satellite launch and peaceful development of space, but in fact to ratchet up its threats against the United States,” the lawmakers told reporters after a closed-door briefing by the spy agency.
Separately, for the first time in 20 years, Pyongyang is also carrying out a sweeping ideological scrutiny of the political unit of the military, one South Korean lawmaker said. The probe was led by the ruling Workers’ Party’s Organisation and Guidance Department and orchestrated by Choe Ryong Hae, who once headed the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army himself until he was replaced by Hwang Pyong So in May 2014. As a result, Hwang and Kim Won Hong, who Seoul’s unification ministry said was removed from office in mid-January as minister of the Stasi-like secret police called “bowibu”, had been punished, the lawmaker said. He did not elaborate.
Choe, who was subjected to political “reeducation” himself in the past, appears to be gaining more influence since he was promoted in October to the party’s powerful Central Military Commission. The National Intelligence Service indicated that Choe now heads the Organisation and Guidance Department, a secretive body that oversees appointments within North Korea’s leadership. “Under Choe’s command, the Organisation and Guidance Department is undertaking an inspection of the military politburo for the first time in 20 years, taking issue with their impure attitude toward the party leadership,” the lawmaker, Kim, said.
Also on Monday, South Korea approved a request by a South Korean to attend an event in the North marking the anniversary of the death of his mother who formerly led the Chondoist Chongu Party, a minor North Korean political party. The son, identified only by his surname Choi, will be the first South Korean to visit the North since liberal President Moon Jae-in took office in May. He is scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang via China on Wednesday and return on Saturday, according to Seoul’s unification ministry.
Finally, a senior Chinese diplomat wrapped up a four-day visit to North Korea on Monday without meeting Kim Jong Un. The diplomat has returned to Beijing, Xinhua reported.
Song Tao, head of the international department of the Chinese Communist Party, met senior officials from the Workers Party of Korea and “exchanged views on the Korean peninsula issue”, according to Xinhua. “The ruling parties of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on Monday pledged to strengthen inter-party exchanges and coordination, and push forward relations,” it added, using North Korea’s official name.
Song had been in Pyongyang to discuss the outcome of the recently concluded Chinese Communist Party Congress in Beijing. Meanwhile, a North Korean defector who was shot seven times while crossing the heavily fortified border separating the two countries has started breathing on his own, Yonhap reported, suggesting that he will most likely survive his injuries, leaving him free to start a new life in South Korea.