North Korea is making final preparations to conduct its fourth nuclear test but may not do so, South Korea's defence minister said yesterday.
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 those preparations was, according to ministry officials.
The defence minister also said North Korea may 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, the officials said, requesting anonymity.
North Korea has threatened in recent weeks to conduct a nuclear test to protest against what it calls US and South Korean hostility and international condemnation over its rocket and missile tests earlier this year.
Many North Korea watchers had suspected a nuclear test would occur when US 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 US-led international pressures on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. 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 US.
Recent months have seen a flare-up of animosities 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 toning down its threats and seeking improved ties with South Korea in what foreign analysts say is an attempt to lure investment and aid.
A year ago, Pyongyang threatened nuclear strikes against Seoul and Washington in protest over tougher US sanctions following its third bomb test.