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North Korea Vows First Nuclear Test

By CHOE SANG-HUN and JOHN O’NEIL

10/03/06 "
New York Times" -- -- SEOUL, Oct. 3 — North Korea announced today that it plans to conduct its first nuclear test, sharply escalating its standoff with the United States and setting off ripples of alarm in Japan and South Korea.

Also today, an Iranian official proposed a new solution to the standoff over its nuclear program, suggesting that France create a consortium that would oversee a uranium enrichment plant in Iran.

A statement released by the North Korean state-run news agency declared that “the U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure” compel the country “to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defense.”

Until now, North Korea has never acknowledged having nuclear weapons, although intelligence officials have assumed for several years that it had produced enough plutonium to build a bomb. Analysts have said in the past that a test could destabilize the balance of power in the region, perhaps pushing Japan to develop its own nuclear weapons, and could raise the risk of a military clash between North Korea and the United States.

The statement gave no indication of when such a test might occur. Last month, Kim Seung Kyu, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, told his country’s parliament that North Korea is capable of conducting an underground nuclear test at any time.

Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, called a test unacceptable and said that it would “worsen” North Korea’s position, Reuters reported. The Japanese foreign minister, Taro Aso, said that Tokyo would respond harshly to a test.

South Korea expressed “deep regret and concern” over the announcement and raised its security level. Yang Chang-Seok, who leads the government’s unification efforts, said the planned test “poses a grave threat to peace” and “will have a decisively negative impact” on relations between the two countries, according to Agence France-Presse.

John R. Bolton, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, told The Associated Press that a nuclear test would be “extraordinarily serious.”

American officials have said that if North Korea were to conduct nuclear tests, the United States would seek Security Council sanctions through a procedure that carries the threat of military action.

In London, a spokesman for Britain’s foreign ministry said a test would be “a highly provocative act with serious consequences.”

North Korea has a history of making provocative declarations meant to get attention for its demands. But this summer it set off similar alarms around the region when it followed through on threats to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile and several shorter-range missiles, defying calls by China, its chief ally in the region, and other countries to cancel the tests.

Intelligence officials have been unsure whether North Korea actually possesses nuclear weapons. The country kicked out international inspectors after being accused by the United States in 2001 of cheating on an earlier agreement to rein in its nuclear program.

China, South Korea, Russia and Japan have joined the United States in what are known as six-party talks with North Korea since then, but for almost a year, North Korea has boycotted those negotiations, citing a crackdown led by the United States on what the Bush administration calls widespread counterfeiting and money laundering by the North.

North Korea lashed out at the moves, saying Washington had left “no dastardly means and methods untried in a foolish attempt to isolate and stifle it economically and bring down the socialist system chosen by its people themselves.”

It called the crackdown a “de facto declaration of war.”

The North Korean statement today said that its ultimate goal is “to settle hostile relations” between it and the United States and remove nuclear threats from the vicinity, according to the A.P.

If it follows through on its threat, it could leave the Security Council struggling to resolve two nuclear crises at once, as talks drag on over Iran’s program.

Today, the deputy chief of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Muhammed Saeedi, told French radio in an interview from Tehran of a new proposal to end the standoff, according to news services.

“To be able to arrive at a solution, we have just had an idea,” he said. He suggested that France work through two of its state-controlled nuclear companies to create a consortium that would build a nuclear enrichment facility in Iran. That way, he said, France “could control in a tangible way our enrichment activities.”

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign minister, called the idea “interesting” but said it needed more study.

Mr. Solana is leading negotiations on behalf of Europe over a package of incentives meant to persuade Iran to shut down its nuclear program, which it calls peaceful but many countries see as a prelude to the development of nuclear weapons.

American officials have supported the current round of negotiations, mostly because Russia and China would block any move now to have the United Nations Security Council impose sanctions. But they have also worried that Iran is seeking to buy time for its program through endless talks, and trying to split what had been a solid international coalition against it.

The French president, Jacques Chirac, has taken a softer line than the leaders of Great Britain and Germany, suggesting last month that the threat of sanctions be dropped if Iran agrees to a temporary halt to nuclear enrichment.

But today French officials rejected the idea that they might reach a separate deal with Iran on Mr. Saeedi’s enrichment plan, saying the “channel of dialogue” must go through Mr. Solana, according to A.F.P.

French officials also reminded Iran that Mr. Solana is still waiting to hear whether it will offer to halt enrichment.

Last year Moscow proposed a similar idea for internationally supervised enrichment, but at a plant located in Russia. That idea won the support of the United States and other nations, but was rejected by Tehran, which insisted on retaining the right to conduct enrichment work on its own soil.

The United States has said it hopes that Mr. Solana’s discussions conclude early this month, and say it will push quickly for sanctions if no deal is reached.

North Korea’s intentions now will likely play a role in a number of planned meetings on nuclear issues.

Its statement about nuclear testing coincided with announcements in Japan that Mr. Abe will visit Beijing and Seoul next week. Mr. Abe, a hawk on North Korea, was expected to make North Korea a high priority in the talks.

“A nuclear test by North Korea will shake up the military balance between North Korea, Japan and South Korea, which has been based on conventional weapons,” said Nam Sung Wook, a North Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul. “The sense of insecurity will spike in South Korea, and calls could mount in Japan for nuclear armament.”

But he noted that North Korea has made many threats that it has not followed through on. “Right now, there is a 50-50 chance of North Korea testing a nuke,” Mr. Nam said. “Much of the decision will depend on what China and South Korea say after their summits with Abe.”

He said that North Korea could finish preparations for a test within three weeks, and would “wait for a timing with a maximum impact.”

In recent weeks, there have been sporadic news reports in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul that North Korea may be preparing for an underground nuclear test. The reports cited activities around underground facilities near the border with China or on the North’s remote northeast coast.

North Korea plans to step up production of fuel for nuclear weapons unless the United States drops financial sanctions, according to an American scholar, Selig S. Harrison, a longtime Korea specialist based in Washington who visited Pyongyang last month.

Choe Sang-Hun reported from Seoul, and John O’Neil from New York.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

 

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