North Korea said Wednesday it has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon shortly after announcing Pyongyang had canceled United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's planned visit there.
Kim Jong Un’s recent provocative and withdrawn behavior is undermining any efforts toward reconciliation and further distancing Pyongyang from the international community.
After planning a visit to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, located just across the border in North Korea for over a week, Ban was surprised by Pyongyang’s sudden cancellation.
"Early this morning, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea authorities informed us, through their diplomatic channels, that they were reversing their decision for me to visit the Kaesong Industrial Complex. No explanation was given for this last-minute change,” Ban said.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex is one of the few remaining remnants of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy of engagement that a decade ago tried to build trust with the communist North by providing unconditional aid and support programs.
Other South Korean aid programs were halted and sanctions imposed against North Korea in 2010 after Seoul accused Pyongyang of sinking a South Korean warship and killing 46 sailors.
Ban had stated he wanted to promote reconciliation and stability on the Korean peninsula. He said the visit to Kaesong, where more than 53,000 North Korean workers are employed by about 120 South Korean factories, would highlight the benefits of engagement and cooperation.
Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byung-chul also voiced regret and reached out to Pyongyang. He said his government once again urges North Korea not to move toward the way of isolation, but to come to the way of peace on the Korean peninsula.
After the cancellation was announced, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported Pyongyang now has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon.
If confirmed, this capability would allow Pyongyang to mount a nuclear warhead on a long- or short-range missile.
Chinese nuclear experts recently warned that North Korea has 20 nuclear warheads. North Korea has conducted a submarine-launched missile test that could soon give it the capability to strike anywhere in the world.
This is not the first time North Korea has claimed to be able to miniaturize nuclear weapons. Following its third nuclear test, in 2013, Pyongyang declared it used a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device."
"Today's statement simply reinforces what they said earlier," says Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "What we have today is a repetition, a strengthening of their claim."
It cannot yet be known whether North Korea has in fact miniaturized nuclear weapons, Fitzpatrick tells VOA, noting North Korea often makes exaggerated claims about its military capabilities.
"I think they probably can (miniaturize) because they've been working at it for so long. So it's my assessment that they have it, but who knows," Fitzpatrick told VOA.
North Korea’s sudden cancellation and hostile reaction does not come as a complete surprise given the regime’s defiant stand against U.N. restrictions to its nuclear program and against a U.N. resolution to refer Kim and other officials to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
In 2013 the United Nations imposed sanctions against Pyongyang after it conducted its third nuclear test.
The human rights resolution was based on a U.N. report documenting a network of political prisons in North Korea and systematic atrocities that include murder, enslavement, torture, rape and forced abortions.
Human rights activist Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the cancellation of Ban’s visit was retaliation for the U.N.’s efforts to hold North Korea accountable.
"So what it is doing is playing a game of shoot the messenger with the U.N., trying to punish or shut out the U.N. whenever it can. And this latest action to bar Ban Ki-moon from the Kaesong Industrial Complex is yet another example of that,” Robertson said.
During his recent visit to Seoul, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Pyongyang has rebuffed efforts by allies China and Russia to restart international negotiations to halt its nuclear program in exchange for economic assistance.
Earlier this month Kim canceled, at the last minute, a visit to Moscow to participate in the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.
Kim has also reportedly executed over 15 high-level North Korean officials this year, including his defense minister who was allegedly killed by an anti-aircraft gun.
Robertson said these diplomatic reversals, acts of provocation and brutality may indicate that the Kim regime is not only withdrawing from international norms of behavior, it may also be experiencing serious internal conflict.
"From the perspective of examining what is going on in Pyongyang, the stability of that government, it also raises some serious concerns about whether the government itself is fully in control,” said Robertson.
Rather than promoting reconciliation, Ban’s trip to Asia has highlighted the growing hostility and tensions on the Korean peninsula.
VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim and Bill Gallo in Washington contributed to this report.