SEOUL-- South Korea's unification minister said Tuesday that North Korea may announce the completion of its nuclear weapons programs next year as the North has been working on its nuclear arsenal at a faster pace.

Cho Myoung-gyon made the remark as North Korea seeks to develop nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching as far as the U.S. mainland.

"North Korea has been developing its nuclear weapons at a faster-than-expected pace. We cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea could announce its completion of a clear force within one year," Cho told foreign correspondents in Seoul.

He said that next year will be a key year for North Korea as the wayward regime marks the 70th anniversary of its establishment in 2018.

The North conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September and fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles this year. But it has refrained from provocations following its launch of an intermediate-range missile over Japan on Sept. 15.

Japan's Kyodo News reported Monday that radio signals suggested that North Korea might be preparing for a ballistic missile launch.

Cho said that North Korea seems to have conducted tests of missile engines and fuels, even amid the lull in provocations.

"It is a fact that we have witnessed some noteworthy movements in North Korea. But it remains to be seen whether Pyongyang would make further provocations," he added.

The minister cited four possible reasons for an absence of the North's provocations.

"As a seasonal factor, the North's provocations noticeably fell in the winter time. Also from the technology perspective, the North may need the time to advance its (nuclear and missile) programs as it seeks to complete its nuclear force," he said.

Cho also added that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be focusing on boosting the economy as he simultaneously pursues the development of nuclear weapons and the economy.

The North may be discouraged from making provocations, as Seoul and Washington have been conducting joint military drills mobilizing U.S. strategic assets, he said.

"If North Korea stops its provocations for a certain period of time, I think it could set the tone (for relevant parties) to enter dialogue with North Korea," Cho noted.

Source: Yonhap News Agency