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.
"It means they are not yet able to confidently build an experimental weapon and they may not be able to determine what they did wrong," Postol said.
Still, Monday's test represented some progress, according to a former intelligence official who has long studied North Korea.
"Without question, it's a step forward," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his past work.
North Korea has for years been the target of international sanctions intended to limit the country's access to bomb and missile-making technology. But a senior administration official said that although the sanctions have undermined the North's economy, they have had little direct effect on its "entirely indigenous" nuclear program.
The government mines its own uranium, builds laboratories using its own technical expertise and generates its own plutonium, making it hard to stop the process from the outside, the official said.
After it exploded a small nuclear device in 2006, North Korea agreed to begin shutting down its main nuclear reactor and began to disable it. It did so in return for food, fuel and diplomatic concessions, including a move by the Bush administration last year to remove North Korea from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. But the negotiations did nothing to stop North Korea from trying to improve the quality of its nuclear devices.
"It is not surprising that the North tested again," said Hecker, who has occasionally been in contact with North Korean nuclear scientists. "The October 2006 test must have raised as many questions for them as it answered. The technical people must have been eager to conduct another test or two."
Hecker said that after North Korea decided in April to cut off the six-nation nuclear talks sponsored by China and reprocess about 18 pounds of plutonium in spent reactor fuel, "they had sufficient material for another test or two."Reassuring Allies
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso said Monday night that his country "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."
Obama spoke by telephone Monday evening with Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Obama told both men that the nuclear test was a violation of international law and reiterated the United States' "unequivocal commitment to the defense" of its two allies, according to an account of the calls released by the White House.
Japan dispatched three military aircraft Monday night from three 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 midrange Nodong missiles capable of striking most of the country.
U.S. intelligence and some independent experts have concluded that North Korea is attempting to build nuclear warheads small enough to fit atop those missiles. Monday's test should be viewed as a step forward in that process, said David Albright, a physicist and nuclear weapons experts who runs the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.
"They want to improve their craft," Albright said. "They want to have assurance that if they put a device on a Nodong or another kind of missile that it will actually work. This explosion takes them down the road a bit toward that goal."'A Serious Threat'
The nuclear test pushed South Korea on Tuesday to join a U.S.-led campaign to stop countries such as North Korea from exporting missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang has warned that it would regard the South's participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative as an act of war.
Chinese reaction to Monday's test was notable for being far less ambivalent than its response three years ago. Then, Beijing expressed concern that its neighbor had violated its commitments, but its state media denounced the United States' confrontational policies and blamed the Bush administration for cutting off aid and provoking the crisis.
China has long been conflicted about how to deal with North Korea's nuclear program. It opposes another nuclear power in the region, which could push Japan and other countries into a military buildup. But it was cautious about weakening the government of Kim Jong Il and setting loose a flow of North Korean refugees into China.
With this test, though, China may consider increasing sanctions on the North, some experts said.
"There is every reason to think they might shut down food or communications links," said Christopher R. Hughes, a professor in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
China cooperated in 2006 with banking sanctions against North Korea on the island of Macau. "Those things obviously hurt the North Koreans and did bring them back to the table," Hughes said.
Significantly at the United Nations on Monday, it was Russia's envoy, Vitaly Churkin, who spoke on behalf of the Security Council's 15 members. Until the early 1990s, the former Soviet Union was by far the most important supporter of North Korea's government.
"The members of the Security Council voice their strong opposition to and condemnation of the nuclear test conducted by" North Korea, said Churkin, who is serving as the council's president this month.
Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, welcomed the council's swift agreement and said the United States would seek support for a new resolution containing tough unspecified measures against Pyongyang.'No Easy Situation'
The government of Kim Jong Il has been fuming over Security Council condemnation of its long-range missile launch in April 5. It had said repeatedly that it might test another nuclear device. In its statement Monday, North Korea said the test was intended to "bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defense in every way."
Analysts said the test may also be related to succession issues.
Last summer Kim reportedly suffered a stroke, and recent photos show that he is much thinner and more frail. His youngest son, Kim Jong Un, is widely speculated to be the most likely successor. "North Korea's leader is ailing, and he may be impatient," said Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University. "Realizing that there is change in store for him, Kim seems to have opted for a strong message that the United States cannot ignore."
North Korea 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.
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 rejecting all talks, accusing Obama of continuing the Bush administration's "hostile policy."
"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."
Staff writers Glenn Kessler, Scott Wilson and Joby Warrick in Washington, Colum Lynch at the United Nations, and Ariana Eunjung Cha in Beijing, and special correspondents Stella Kim in Seoul and Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo, contributed to this report.