SEOUL: North Korea is making final preparations to conduct its fourth nuclear test but may not do so anytime soon, South Korea's defense minister said Thursday.
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told South Korean journalists that North Korea could detonate a nuclear device the instant the decision is made, though he didn't elaborate on what the final step of its preparations was, according to ministry officials.
Kim also said North Korea may intentionally hold off on a test or it may be aiming to trick outside observers into believing it will explode a device even though it doesn't intend to do so soon, the officials said requesting anonymity citing department rules.
North Korea has threatened in recent weeks to conduct a nuclear test to protest what it calls U.S. and South Korean hostility and international condemnation over its rocket and missile tests earlier this year. South Korea has warned North Korea would face serious consequences if the test is made.
Many North Korea watchers had suspected a nuclear test would occur when President Barack Obama visited Seoul last month but nothing happened. Analysts remain divided over whether North Korea would go ahead with a test anytime soon.
But the test, if made, would mark another defiant response to U.S.-led international pressures on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program. North Korea conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
Western experts believe North Korea has a handful of rudimentary bombs though it's not yet believed to acquire a technology to manufacture warheads small enough to mount a missile that could threaten the U.S. Another nuclear test worries observers because it could put the North a step closer to its goal of building a long-range nuclear-armed missile. North Korea says it needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent against U.S. military threats.
Recent months have seen animosities flare up on the Korean Peninsula with Pyongyang conducting a barrage of rocket and missile tests and resuming fierce rhetoric against Seoul and Washington. Before then, the North had been gradually dialing down its threats and seeking improved ties with South Korea in what foreign analysts said was an attempt to lure investment and aid.
On Thursday, Seoul's Defense Ministry announced that a joint investigation by South Korea and the U.S. concluded three drones found in the South in March and April were flown by North Korea on military surveillance missions. A ministry statement called the drone flights a military provocation and said that South Korea will strongly react to it. North Korea has denied it sent such drones, accusing South Korea of plotting another fabrication that shows its confrontational stance on the North.
South Korean defense officials said the drones are considered crude and low-tech but that it's the first time North Korean drones have been found crashed in South Korea.
The two Koreas are divided along the world's most heavily armed border since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 American troops are deployed in South Korea as buttress against potential North Korean aggression.
A year ago, Pyongyang made a torrent of threats to launch nuclear strikes against Seoul and Washington in protest of U.N. sanctions that were toughened over its third bomb test.