China, Russia Join World in Condemning North Korea's Nuclear Test

South Korea, led by Lee Myung-bak, cited a threat to peace.
South Korea, led by Lee Myung-bak, cited a threat to peace. (Lee Jin-man - AP)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

TOKYO, May 27 -- North Korea's detonation of a nuclear device Monday appears not to have been a significant technical advance over its first underground test three years ago. But it has triggered a swifter, stronger and more uniform wave of international condemnation, most notably from the isolated nation's historical allies, China and Russia.

The U.N. Security Council moved quickly in an emergency meeting Monday to condemn the test, saying it constituted a clear violation of a 2006 U.N. resolution barring the communist state from exploding a nuclear weapon. The council's speedy response contrasted with protracted discussions that followed North Korea's April 5 launch of a long-range missile and reflected what analysts called deep displeasure by Russia and China.

Earlier, the Chinese government, North Korea's main economic patron, said it was "resolutely opposed" to the test and told Pyongyang to avoid actions that heighten tensions and return to multi-nation talks focused on dismantling its nuclear program. China's response Monday was significantly more pointed than it was to North Korea's first nuclear test, in October 2006.

President Obama, whose staff was informed of Monday's test about an hour before it took place and who had been briefed several times in the past week about the possibility, accused North Korea of "blatant violation of international law."

"By acting in blatant defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community," Obama said in a brief statement outside the White House. "North Korea's behavior increases tensions and undermines stability in Northeast Asia. Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation."

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

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

But several U.S. experts on nuclear weapons said Monday's test demonstrated that the North Koreans have not yet mastered the technology of creating a reliable nuclear bomb.

"The simplest hypothesis is that they're trying to build a weaponizable device and they're still not that good at it," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit group.

The explosive yield from Monday's test was in the range of 2 to 4 kilotons, which is two to five times that of the 2006 test, according to Siegfried S. Hecker, a periodic visitor to North Korea's nuclear complex in Yongbyon who is a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and current co-director of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

"You would expect 10 to 20 times that yield," said Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "These guys have not solved the problem."

On a technical level, Postol said, the North Koreans appear to be having trouble building a device that uses explosives to compress plutonium into a perfect ball, which creates a uniformly spherical implosion and the maximum possible explosive yield.

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