North Korea said Friday it will "review the nuclear issue" after arresting a North Korean defector for allegedly plotting to destroy statues of the late leader Kim Il Sung at the behest of the United States and South Korea.
State media reported Thursday that North Korean defector Jon Yong Chol said South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies had ordered him to return to the country to blow up statues and monuments, a bid to make it appear that North Korea was suffering internal unrest. Jon appeared on North Korean television Thursday giving an extensive account of how the alleged attacks were planned.
South Korea has denied the allegation as groundless. One government official was quoted in the newspaper Chosun Ilbo dismissing the idea as an "improbable plot."
The North Korean Foreign Ministry added in a statement run on state media Friday that by backing the plot, the U.S. had violated a deal with Pyongyang to pull back on its nuclear program.
"The situation forces us to completely review the nuclear issue," it concluded.
It is unclear what a nuclear review might mean. A failed North Korean rocket launch earlier this year -- widely believed to be a cover for testing its ballistic missile technology -– spurred fears that the country would turn next to a nuclear test, as it did after unsuccessful launches in 2006 and 2009.
Earlier this year, North Korea said it had no plans to carry out a nuclear test. The Friday announcement spurred speculation over whether the country's leadership could be reconsidering.
"North Korea is not expected to translate its threat into action for a while. But it is saying it can take action if the United States continues to ignore its calls," Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies told the Agence France-Presse news service.
Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has dismissed its military chief and made hints at cultural change, letting Mickey Mouse and mini-skirts make an appearance at a televised concert. South Korean media and foreign analysts have eagerly sought to parse those steps for signs of where North Korea is headed.
Reuters reported Friday that a source with ties to both North Korea and China said the military chief, Ri Yong Ho, had been ousted for opposing plans to wrest control of the North Korean economy away from the military.
But experts often caution that good information is difficult to glean from the closed country and warn against reading too much into the small steps that have fascinated and confounded the outside world.
"Anyone who knows what they're talking about on North Korea will admit they don't know what's going on there," David Chan-oong Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: This screen grab taken from North Korean television shows Jon Yong Chol speaking at a Thursday news conference in Pyongyang. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images / North Korean TV