N. Korea Conducts 'Successful' Underground Nuclear Test

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 25, 2009; 3:05 PM

TOKYO, May 25 -- North Korea exploded a nuclear device Monday morning, startling the world with its second underground test in three years and vexing the Obama administration, which has said it wants to solve the nuclear impasse with North Korea.

The test, described as "successful" by the communist state's official Korean Central News Agency, escalates a pattern of provocation that this spring has included a long-range missile launch, detention of two U.S. journalists, kicking out U.N. nuclear inspectors, restarting a plutonium factory and halting six-nation nuclear negotiations.

On Monday afternoon, North Korea fired three surface-to-air missiles into the sea, according to South Korea's defense minister, Lee Sang-hee. It was an apparent effort to chase off U.S. spy planes monitoring the nuclear test site, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, which quoted an unnamed South Korean official. The missiles, with a range of about 80 miles, were launched from near a coastal base where last month North Korea launched a long-range missile. In Washington, President Obama accused North Korea of "recklessly challenging the international community" with its nuclear and missiles tests. He added in an early morning statement that "the danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants action by the international community."

"North Korea's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as its ballistic missile program, constitute a threat to international peace and security," he said.

The test was also strongly condemned by all of North Korea's neighbors in Northeast Asia, including its historic allies China and Russia. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. EDT on Monday in emergency session to discuss the matter.

North Korea said that its second nuclear test was more powerful and better controlled than its first, which was conducted in October, 2006, and which many experts characterized as a semi-failure.

Early evidence suggests that may be true. The explosion produced a 4.7-magnitude tremor, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It was measured in South Korea as a 4.5-magnitude quake. The previous nuclear test registered 3.58 on the Richter scale.

The test occurred at the same site on the northeast tip of the Korean peninsula as the explosion that three years ago shocked the United States and most of the world -- and opened a door for renewed diplomatic talks.

The 2006 test pushed the Bush administration to negotiate directly with North Korea and produced agreements that, in return for Pyongyang's promises to give up nuclear weapons, gave North Korea food, fuel and diplomatic concessions, including removal from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Those talks have since broken down, primarily because of a dispute over verifying what weapons exist in the North.

This time around, the shock factor is much diminished.

U.S. experts agree that North Korea has enough weapons-grade plutonium to make six to eight bombs. Officials in Pyongyang said earlier this year that all of the plutonium has been "weaponized." Recent reports from intelligence sources in the South Korean government have said that unusual activity was occurring at the test site.

The government of Kim Jong Il has been fuming over U.N. Security Council condemnation of its long-range missile launch on April 5. It has repeatedly said it may test another nuclear device weapon.

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