SEOUL: North Korea could carry out a third atomic test next year to strengthen the credentials of its young leader-in-waiting Kim Jong-un‚ a research report from a South Korean foreign ministry institute said on Friday.
The regular report was published a day after Pyongyang vowed a nuclear "sacred war" after the South vowed to be "merciless" if attacked‚ and held a major military drill near the border.
The North‚ which carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009‚ has yet to show it has a deliverable weapon as part of its plutonium arms program‚ but a third test would raise tensions further on the divided peninsula and rattle global markets.
Nuclear experts have also said they expect a third test soon‚ while South Korean media reported earlier this month that the North was digging a tunnel in preparation.
"There is a possibility of North Korea carrying out its third nuclear test to seek improvement in its nuclear weapons production capability‚ keep the military tension high and promote Kim Jong-un´s status as the next leader‚" the report said‚ referring to sickly Kim Jong-il´s youngest son.
"Tension between the two Koreas will remain high with chances of additional North Korean attacks on the South staying high. Chances of a summit meeting between leaders of the two sides look slim‚" the institute said‚ according to a summary of the report.
The analysis for 2011 was written by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security‚ run by the Foreign Ministry.
Hostilities are at their most intense since the Korean War in the early 1950s‚ after a deadly naval clash in March and the North´s attack on a South Korean island last month.
"Relations between the two Koreas are at their worst point in more than a decade‚ with much of the progress of recent years undone‚" International Crisis Group analyst Daniel Pinkston said.
"In the South‚ impatience with Pyongyang is growing‚ and there are demands from the right in Seoul for more robust terms of military engagement in the event of future clashes."
Still‚ the risk of all-out war is low‚ and the North´s threats of destruction are seen as largely rhetorical.
Pyongyang´s tactic of boasting about nuclear advances is a ploy aimed at restarting talks between itself‚ the South‚ China‚ Japan‚ Russia and the United States‚ from which it hopes to wring concessions‚ analysts say.
"Some form of meeting between six-party members could be held during 2011 to discuss North Korea´s uranium enrichment‚ but chances are very low for any meaningful progress being achieved‚" the Foreign Ministry institute said.
China‚ the North´s only major ally and vital financial backer‚ sees the forum as the best place to begin dialogue‚ but Seoul‚ Washington and Tokyo say they first need proof that Pyongyang is committed to dismantling its nuclear work.
"It is about time that China loses its patience‚" Seoul´s Joongang Daily said in a commentary.
"The time has come for Seoul to strategically manipulate the North Korea-China alliance to encourage estrangement."