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Biden heading to South Korea and Japan amid rising threat of North Korea resuming nuclear weapons tests

North Korea's nuclear threat
Biden heads to Asia amid rising threat of new North Korea nuclear test 02:30

Tokyo — President Joe Biden was heading to Asia on Thursday for meetings with close allies in South Korea and Japan. He will arrive amid a rising threat of North Korea returning to nuclear weapons tests it abandoned three years ago. 

As CBS News senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports, the isolated "Hermit Kingdom" is upping the ante in its nuclear brinkmanship even as the country deals with a major COVID-19 outbreak.

Almost four years ago exactly, North Korea made a big show of blowing up the tunnels of its Punggye-ri nuclear test facility. It was supposed to be a step forward in a long negotiation process toward the denuclearization of dictator Kim Jong Un's country.

Firsthand look at North Korea's nuclear test site demolition show 03:10

But as Palmer reports, North Korea is now taking a step back.

"They wanted to demonstrate, obviously falsely, that they were committed to denuclearization," Joe Bermudez, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told CBS News. "The reality is that they didn't destroy the tunnel. They just destroyed the portal. The portal being the opening part of it."

Now, Bermudez says new satellite pictures show North Korea has been digging a brand new entrance into a still-intact test tunnel at the site.

"It apparently goes pretty far, and they could have a device in place as soon as the end of the month," he predicted.

A "device" being a nuclear bomb, which, unlike the 2018 explosions highlighted for the world to see, would be detonated deep underground. Analysts believe the point of more nuclear testing is to refine and miniaturize nuclear warheads for North Korea's missile arsenal.

Koreas Tensions
Foreign media crowd the entrance of the north tunnel at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site during a visit to see its purported demolition on May 24, 2018, in North Hamgyong Province, North Korea. APTN via AP

Under orders from Kim, North Korea has test-fired missile after missile this year. They are designed to carry nuclear warheads, and some are powerful enough to reach the United States mainland.

Bermudez says for Pyongyang, the endgame of the escalating tests and looming threat of returning to nuclear tests is simple: "Survival of the Kim regime and the survival of North Korea — and in that order."

He said North Korea has made the calculation that a proven nuclear weapons strike capability will prevent any other country from attacking — including and most importantly, the United States.

North Korea claims it tested new type of missile 04:53

North Korea's relations with the rest of the world have declined remarkably over the last couple decades. As recently as 2008 the New York Philharmonic played a landmark concert in Pyongyang.

But that was back when the ruling Kim dynasty's second dictator, Kim Jong-il, seemed open to scaling back his country's nuclear program.

There was another burst of optimism in 2018, when President Donald Trump met that Kim's son, the current all-powerful leader of North Korea, for direct talks. But those talks collapsed, leaving a dangerous stalemate in their wake.

In April, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that "rather than showing any willingness to sit down
in good faith and negotiate and talk and use diplomacy, the North continues to conduct tests."

Asked what keeps him awake most at night as a long-time observer of the nuclear standoff, Bermudez told CBS News it was the risk of a "miscalculation."

U.S. condemns North Korea's long-range missile test 02:01

"That's my greatest concern," he said: That something that starts out "as a minor incident could quickly escalate by miscalculation." That risk is compounded, in Bermudez's opinion, by the relatively simplistic strategic thinking in Pyongyang.

"When we look at, you know, how the dynamics of international politics, nuclear politics have developed over the years, we tend to be very conservative and very hesitant to use nuclear weapons," he said. "Whereas North Korea has a very, from what we can tell, unsophisticated strategy for nuclear weapons."

Palmer says the mood music emanating from Pyongyang now is loud, clear, and unlike the philharmonic orchestra, overtly belligerent.

The country's surging coronavirus epidemic could distract the leadership, but Kim's nuclear ambitions aren't going away, and analysts warn the risk of a lethal miscalculation is rising.

That's something President Biden will have to consider as he visits the Korean Peninsula later this week.

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