US & World

North Korea possibly conducts sixth nuclear test, South Korea says

The government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un conducted two nuclear tests last year.
The government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un conducted two nuclear tests last year.
Wong Maye-E/AP

North Korea possibly conducted a sixth nuclear test Sunday, South Korean officials said, heightening tensions between Pyongyang and its neighbors — and challenging the Trump administration head-on.

The U.S. Geological Survey says it detected a 6.3 magnitude "possible explosion" near Sungjibaegam, North Korea Sunday afternoon, "located near the site where North Korea has detonated nuclear explosions in the past."

South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff say they detected an "artificial seismic wave" at 12:29 p.m. local time and are "currently looking into the possibility of it being a nuclear test."

The incident was near North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which is in the country's northeast and the site of the five previous tests.

North Korea twice tested underground nuclear devices last year, once in January and again in September, the latter just hours after former President Barack Obama wrapped up his final trip to Asia as head of state.

A test for Trump

That Pyongyang conducted another experiment signals a continued effort to advance as a nuclear state despite years of effort by the international community to reverse those gains. It's also a reminder of the challenge that North Korea presents for the Trump administration. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared during his March visit to Seoul that the policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea was over.

President Trump threatened to meet North Korea with "fire and fury" in response to North Korean threats.

Security experts say North Korea could have more than a dozen nuclear devices. It first conducted an underground test in 2006. These tests, along with the ballistic missiles Pyongyang fires into the sea at a regular tempo, are all barred by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

But the choices for neighbors in the region and for the United States, which hosts some 28,000 forces in South Korea as part of a decades-old alliance, are lousy.

Buffet of bad options

The Trump administration has reportedly considered a preemptive strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities, but the costs of such a move have consistently been too high for previous administrations to bear. The North doesn't need to use its nuclear weapons — it has 20,000 conventional rocket launchers, artillery pieces and heavy mortars — to attack Seoul, which is less than an hour's drive from the inter-Korean border. The metro area is home to nearly half of the South Korean population of 50 million.

Any such attack would likely escalate and restart an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula, which could cost millions of lives — and that's assuming China, an ally of North Korea, weren't to get involved.

Sanctions, meanwhile, have proven to be ineffective. North Korea has become increasingly cut off by other rounds of sanctions and therefore more effective in surviving off the books. That leaves two other unsavory options, as The Economist notes:

"One is to press China to make life so uncomfortable for the regime that it fears for its survival (the likely intention of Mr Trump's talk of dealing with North Korea alone if necessary). The other is to offer Mr Kim some sort of deal."

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