Despite its three nuclear tests and long-range rocket tests, North Korea is not believed to be close to manufacturing a nuclear missile capable of hitting the United States.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said Pyongyang had informed China and the United States of its plans to test on Monday, although this could not be confirmed.
When North Korean leader Kim, 30, took power after his father’s death in December 2011, there were hopes the he would bring reforms and end Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policies.
Instead, the North, whose economy is smaller than it was 20 years ago and where a third of children are believed to be malnourished, appears to be trapped in a cycle of sanctions followed by further provocations.
“The more North Korea shoots missiles, launches satellites or conducts nuclear tests, the more the U.N. Security Council will impose new and more severe sanctions,” said Shen Dingli, a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “It is an endless, vicious cycle.”
But options for the international community appear to be in short supply, as North Korea is already one of the most heavily sanctioned states on earth.
Tuesday’s action appeared to have been timed for the run-up to Feb. 16 anniversary celebrations of Kim Jong-il’s birthday, as well as to achieved maximum international attention.
Significantly, the test comes at a time of political transition in China, Japan and South Korea, and as Obama begins his second term. He will likely have to tweak his State of the Union address due to be given on Tuesday.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bedding down a new government and South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, prepares to take office on Feb. 25.