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N. Korea Plans a Nuclear Test

Times Staff Writers

World leaders lashed out at North Korea’s vow Tuesday to test a nuclear bomb sometime “in the future,” but offered no clear plan for dealing with aggravated tensions over the dictatorship’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

U.S. intelligence officials said they had been monitoring recent movement of people and vehicles around at least one suspected test site. But because North Korea has never conducted a nuclear test, it is difficult for intelligence agencies to determine how close the regime may be to setting off a bomb.

The North Koreans did not elaborate on when a test would occur or whether it would be conducted below ground, which experts say is most likely, or in the atmosphere.

Showcasing a nuclear capability would almost certainly deepen North Korea’s diplomatic and economic isolation, and could escalate the military buildup in northeast Asia, where grievances run deep and suspicions between capitals are high.

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North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that a test of the nation’s nuclear capability was a necessary response to Washington’s financial squeeze on the country, which it described as a “de facto declaration of war.” In recent months, Washington has accused Kim Jong Il’s regime of counterfeiting U.S. currency and using foreign banks to launder drug money, and has increased pressure on banks around the world not to handle transactions with Pyongyang’s military and political elite.

“The U.S. extreme threat of nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel [North Korea] to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering [our] nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defense,” the North Korean statement said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling in Egypt, said a test would be “a very provocative act.”

In Japan, a country within North Korean missile range and where hostility to Kim’s regime is a hallmark of its new hard-line government, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that “Japan and the world would definitely not tolerate a nuclear test.”

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And the South Korean government, which has been reluctant to take a hard line against its volatile neighbor, expressed concern over the announcement and said President Roh Moo-hyun would visit Beijing on Oct. 13 to discuss it.

But there was no immediate consensus on what measures should be employed to defuse the latest threat.

China, North Korea’s neighbor and key economic partner, urged calm and restraint.

In New York, the United Nations Security Council declined to issue a formal admonition, noting that it had passed a tough resolution in July demanding that North Korea end all provocative acts and return to six-party talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear weapons program in return for security guarantees and economic incentives.

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That resolution followed North Korea’s July test firing of a long-range Taepodong 2 missile and a surprising burst of shorter-range missiles, in defiance of similar warnings.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John R. Bolton said the Security Council would meet today on finding a more effective way to discourage Pyongyang from conducting a nuclear test.

The North Korean move adds complexity to nuclear diplomacy as the Security Council seeks ways to dissuade Iran from continuing its nuclear enrichment activities. Pyongyang’s defiance underscores the limited power economic sanctions exert over authoritarian governments prepared to let their civilian populations suffer in order to acquire a nuclear capability.

Kurt Campbell, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Asia and the Pacific, called the Korean peninsula “the land of lousy options” and said the U.S. was limited in what it could do to diplomatically or forcibly prevent a test.

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“It is a profound and deep failure for the United States and China if North Korea tests a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, traveling in Nicaragua, suggested that a test by North Korea could lead to the further spread of nuclear technology.

“They are an active proliferator,” Rumsfeld said. “And were they to test and were they then to proliferate those technologies, we’d be living with a proliferator and obviously we’d be living in a somewhat different world.”

While the Defense secretary expressed concern that a test would increase the possibility of a bomb falling into rogue hands, others warned that a proven North Korean capability could encourage other countries in the region, such as Japan, to push for a nuclear arsenal of their own.

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North Korea is estimated to have sufficient plutonium for as many as 13 weapons. By 2008, Pyongyang could have the capability to develop as many a 17 nuclear weapons, according to the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonpartisan Washington group headed by David Albright, who has worked with the International Atomic Energy Agency on nuclear inspections.

The United States, which has about 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea, is using imagery and heat sensors in trying to track North Korean activity at suspected test sites.

Pentagon officials said they were concerned about the possibility of a nuclear test, and they emphasized that the United States was trying to find diplomatic means of preventing the North Koreans from carrying one out.

“We think there needs to be a diplomatic solution to this,” Vice Adm. John Morgan, the Navy’s chief of strategy and plans, told reporters Tuesday. “We think the international community is working hard to achieve that.”

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Although North Korean government rhetoric and activity around the test sites have heated up, intelligence officials do not believe a test is imminent.

“No one can say with certainty whether it will happen -- no one, that is, but Kim Jong Il,” said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing intelligence data. “It could happen with little or no warning. We don’t have a wonderful timetable that says they have to do 14 things to prepare for a test and they have done seven of them. There is no precedent for assessing how North Korea does its test preparations.”

U.S. officials could not say what type of test the North Koreans might conduct. They believe an underground test is more likely but have not ruled out the possibility that Kim would order an aboveground test, which could produce a large mushroom cloud and spread radioactive dust.

Some observers say North Korea may be bluffing and that the talk of a test is to counter the Bush administration’s pursuit of economic sanctions.

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Washington says it cannot tolerate what it describes as criminal activities among the Pyongyang regime and foreign banks, and says its global campaign against those transactions is separate from the nuclear weapons issue.

The administration recently sent diplomatic feelers to Pyongyang about restarting the six-party talks. But those overtures have floundered over North Korea’s insistence that the U.S. first stop what Pyongyang sees as an attempt to break the regime through an expanding campaign of financial sanctions.

Donald Gregg, president of the Korea Society and a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said he thought that Pyongyang’s threat was serious, but that a test would be a strategic error.

“They have been working for this for a long time, they have threatened it, and they have said flatly that they have nuclear weapons,” he said. “But it will heighten their isolation.”

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com julian.barnes@latimes.com

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Wallace reported from Tokyo and Barnes from Washington. Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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