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N. Korea Declares Nuclear Test

Times Staff Writers

North Korea today announced it had carried out a successful underground nuclear test, following through on a threat issued last week and defying repeated calls from around the world to stand down.

In an announcement on the official Korean Central News Agency monitored in Seoul, the North Korean government in Pyongyang said the test was carried out without radioactive leakage.

If confirmed, the test would make North Korea the eighth declared nuclear power, joining the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, India and Pakistan. Israel also is believed to possess nuclear weapons, although it has not officially declared so.

It is unclear whether North Korea has the technical capabilities to mount a nuclear device atop a missile for delivery. Pyongyang has previously tested long-range missiles, including one that flew over Japan in 1998.

“The nuclear test is a historic event that brought happiness to our military and people,” the agency said. “The nuclear test will contribute to maintaining peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and surrounding region.”

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The South Korean news agency Yonhap, citing defense officials, said the test occurred at 10:36 a.m. in Hwaderi, near the northeastern city of Kilju.

The U.S. Geological Survey reported on its website that it had detected a magnitude 4.2 seismic event on the peninsula at 10:37.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said today that the test “would constitute a provocative act, in defiance of the will of the international community and of our call to refrain from actions that would aggravate tensions in northeast Asia.

“We expect the [United Nations] Security Council to take immediate action to respond to this unprovoked act,” Snow added. “The United States is closely monitoring the situation and reaffirms its commitment to protect and defend our allies in the region.”

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun convened a meeting of officials today to discuss Seoul’s response to the test. Roh was scheduled to meet visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in what had been planned as a fence-mending summit between the two nations. South Korean presidential spokesman Yoon Tae-young said that Roh called on North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program. “North Korea should assume all responsibilities” for any radioactive fallout from a test, Yoon said, according to the Associated Press.

South Korea also suspended a scheduled aid shipment of 4,000 tons of cement to North Korea, Yonhap reported today.

A South Korean geological institute told the Associated Press that the explosion generated a force equivalent to that from 550 tons of TNT. The atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima struck with the force of about 12,500 tons of TNT.

Japanese officials said they were unable to independently confirm the test.

“I am aware of the declaration by North Korea that it has conducted a nuclear test,” Abe told reporters traveling with him in Seoul, according to Japan’s Kyodo News agency. “Japan is in contact with the United States and China for intelligence analysis ... and I will discuss with the South Korean side how to respond.”

Kyodo also quoted a Japanese defense official as saying that Japan had been informed of the detonation by Chinese military officials, who had reportedly been forewarned about the test.

China’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged the test in a statement on its website. North Korea, it said, “has ignored the widespread opposition of the international community and conducted a nuclear test brazenly.”

The Japanese government had threatened further economic sanctions if Pyongyang proceeded with a nuclear test. But Tokyo has little leverage with the North Koreans, having already curbed its limited trade and investment activity.

“The prime minister’s office has been working on options for additional sanctions over the past two or three days,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told reporters today. “So probably Japan would take those actions, but it would have to decide which options to take.”

Many observers in Tokyo and Seoul had expected North Korea to make good on its threats to test a nuclear device. They noted that North Korea’s statement last week included pledges similar to those made by other nations before they conducted tests: no first use of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation.

“That was the language of a government preparing to test,” says Kim Tae-woo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “The optimists were saying Pyongyang was just threatening a test to get negotiating leverage, but they miss the point that North Korea wants to be a nuclear power state. They are not stupid. They know a nuclear test worsens their relations with China, with Russia, with South Korea. They know what losses they will suffer.

“But they had an ambition to be a nuclear state, and they were prepared to do whatever was necessary to prove they would resist American pressure.”

The North Korean test also strikes a blow to Roh’s policy of trying to engage rather than confront Kim Jong Il’s government. Many observers had predicted a test would gravely damage Roh’s already weakened government, providing ammunition to conservative critics who have long argued that the president’s policy amounted to appeasement.

As rumors spread last week of an imminent test, the U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously urged North Korea to scrap plans for a nuclear test and return to six-party talks -- involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, the United States and Russia -- or face unspecified consequences.

The statement said that a test would “bring universal condemnation by the international community.”

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John R. Bolton, said Friday that the United States was prepared to push for international economic sanctions. “If they do test it, it will be a very different world the day after,” he said before the meeting. “There would be another nuclear power. This would be proof positive of North Korea having a weapon.”

The Security Council is expected to discuss the issue today.

In a conference call with reporters early today, Snow said: “We’ve already made it abundantly clear on a number of occasions that if the North Koreans return to the six-party talks there would be a way forward. Obviously they are going to have to renounce their nuclear ambitions along the way.”

North Korea has previously timed its military exercises to coincide with significant dates: It test-fired missiles on July 4, despite international warnings. Today is Workers’ Party Day in North Korea, a national holiday.

The announcement of the test follows growing ties among Japan, South Korea and China and statements of shared concern over North Korea’s provocations, a potential source of insecurity for Pyongyang.

“The fact North Korea did this now rather than wait as we expected shows they are more determined,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor and North Korea expert at the People’s University in Beijing. “In their eyes, the whole world is their enemy. Japan and the U.S. will no doubt work really hard now to impose U.N. sanctions.”

The test will put China in a particularly difficult position as the North’s main ally and a major supplier of energy and aid. If China doesn’t go along with mounting calls for sanctions, it could find its relations strained with the United States and other key customers.

If it pushes North Korea harder, it risks seeing the regime’s collapse, which could lead to a refugee influx and other social problems in its northeastern region. “In the end I think China will have to go along with U.N. sanctions, or at least agree not to use its veto,” Shi added.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry had warned Tuesday that the nation was preparing for a nuclear test to ensure its security in the face of what the government described as threats from the United States.

Pyongyang has been particularly concerned about financial sanctions levied against it last year. Washington has also encouraged banks around the world to cut off business dealings because of North Korea’s suspected money laundering and counterfeiting. The North Koreans want the U.S. to lift the sanctions and engage in direct talks.

For the last year, the North has refused to attend the six-nation talks aimed at persuading it to rid itself of nuclear arms. The country pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 after U.S. officials accused it of engaging in a secret nuclear program, in violation of an earlier nuclear pact between Washington and Pyongyang.

Speculation over a possible North Korean test arose this year after U.S. and Japanese reports cited suspicious activity at a suspected underground test site.

The nuclear test occurred at a “stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous powerful socialist nation,” the North Korean news agency said. “The nuclear test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology 100%. It marks a historic event as it greatly encouraged and pleased the [Korean People’s Army] and people that have wished to have powerful self-reliant defense capability.”

mark.magnier@latimes.com

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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Magnier reported from Beijing and Wallace from Tokyo.

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Times staff writers Paul Richter and Julian E. Barnes in Washington, Times researcher Jinna Park in Seoul and Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Key dates

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The U.S., Japan, South Korea and other governments have been trying to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program for years, but failed to reach an agreement. Today North Korea announced it had conducted its first nuclear test near Kilju in the country’s far northeast.

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October 1994: U.S., North Korea sign pact intended to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for fuel and help building light-water nuclear reactors for power.

October 2002: North Korea acknowledges existence of a nuclear program in violation of the 1994 pact, after U.S. officials produce evidence.

December 2002: North Korea orders inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to leave North Korea and restarts its main reactor at Yongbyon.

January 2003: North Korea says it is withdrawing from the global nuclear arms control treaty.

May 2005: North Korea reports it has removed fuel rods from its main nuclear reactor, a key step toward preparing to harvest plutonium for bombs.

July 2006: North Korea conducts missile tests.

October 9: North Korea reports underground nuclear test.


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