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.
In its statement Monday, North Korea said the test was intended to "bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defense in every way."
Many analysts who follow North Korea were expecting the test.
"This is absolutely predictable, even though I thought they would do it later, allowing some time for tension to mount," said Andrei Lankov, a Seoul-based expert on North Korea who teaches at Kookmin University. "This is part of their usual blackmail tactics, aimed at squeezing more concessions from the United States."
Obama's special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, has signaled he is willing to begin bilateral talks with Pyongyang, as well as continue negotiations in a six-nation disarmament forum.
But North Korea is now rejecting all talks, accusing Obama of continuing the Bush administration's "hostile policy."
A few hours after the nuclear test, foreign ministers from South Korea and Japan agreed that their countries would demand an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The two were in Hanoi for a conference.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Taro Aso said that Japan "absolutely cannot tolerate" the nuclear test because North Korea is also beefing up its ballistic missile capability, which "could be a means of transportation for weapons of mass destruction."
On Monday night, Japan dispatched three military aircraft from separate bases to monitor the possible presence of radioactive substances in the air, the Defense Ministry said. Japan's anxiety about the test is heightened by its vulnerability to attack from nearby North Korea, which has more than 200 mid-range Nodong missiles capable of striking most of the country.
U.S. intelligence and some independent experts have concluded that North Korea has built or is attempting to build nuclear warheads small enough to fit atop those missiles.
The South Korean government said the nuclear test was "a serious threat" to peace on the Korean Peninsula and "a serious challenge to the international regime on nuclear non-proliferation."
China, North Korea's closest ally and economic patron, said Monday it is "resolutely opposed to" its neighbor's latest nuclear test.
A Foreign Ministry statement said North Korea carried out Monday's test in defiance of the international community and its own commitments to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. It asked that Pyongyang avoid actions that heighten tensions and advised it to return to multi-nation talks focused on dismantling its nuclear programs. Beside China and North Korea, other parties to the talks are the United States, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
After North Korea launched its missile in April, China resisted moves by Japan, South Korea and the United States to use the United Nations as a vehicle for new sanctions against Pyongyang. The 2006 nuclear test, though, brought criticism from China and resulted in a regimen of new U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
The United States and Japan were taking the lead Monday in fashioning a diplomatic response that would condemn the latest nuclear test, according to a Security Council diplomat.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke in the morning with the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea and will speak with her counterparts in China and Russia later in the day, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday. "In her conversations, the Secretary stressed the importance of a strong, unified approach to this threat to international peace and security," Kelly said in an e-mailed statement.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council imposed financial sanctions on three North Korean firms, marking the first time the United Nations has penalized individual companies linked to Pyongyang's nuclear- and ballistic-missile trade. The Security Council also reinforced a trade ban on items that North Korea could potentially use in the development of missiles.
The three state companies, Korea Mining Development Trading Corp., Tanchon Commercial Bank and Korea Ryongbong General Corp., have previously been sanctioned by the United States for trading missile technology with Iran, Yemen and Pakistan. Their customers included Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani physicist who is considered the father of his country's nuclear weapons program.
But North Korea has previously ignored demands by the 15-nation council to halt its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.
North Korea instead has focused on establishing full diplomatic relations with the United States and receiving recognition as a nuclear state, according to several official statements and many analysts.
"North Korea's message is that they are heading towards status as a nuclear nation and that they will, therefore, deal only with the United States," said Cha Du-hyeogn, director of North Korean research at the Seoul-based Korean Institute of Defense Analysis, a government-affiliated think tank. "This is no easy situation for the United States and a worse one for South Korea."
Whatever North Korea's long-range negotiation goals may be, the immediate trigger for Monday's nuclear test appears to have been harsh criticism from the United States and most of the rest of world over the April long-range missile launch.
North Korean claimed the launch was a "peaceful" attempt to put a communication satellite in space. It said, too, that its satellite had gone into orbit and was broadcasting music that honored the leadership skills of Kim Jong Il.
The missile, though, splashed into the Pacific and sent nothing into orbit.
Still, it demonstrated to many Western experts a new and worrying capacity by North Korea to build multi-stage rockets that could one day deliver a nuclear warhead as far as Hawaii, Alaska or the U.S. mainland.
Staff writers Glenn Kessler in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondents Stella Kim in Seoul and Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.