By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 9:59 AM
TOKYO, May 27 -- Diplomatic aftershocks from North Korea's latest nuclear test are jangling nerves and changing policies across northeast Asia.
Affronted by Monday's test, South Korea announced Tuesday that it will join a U.S.-led effort to intercept suspicious ships at sea in an effort to stop countries such as North Korea from exporting missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
The North fired three more short-range missiles off its east coast on Tuesday, said Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. After its underground test Monday, North Korea had fired three missiles into the same waters.
And U.S. spy satellites have detected signs that North Korea has restarted its nuclear plant, a South Korean newspaper reported Wednesday. Chosun Ilbo cited an unnamed South Korean government source as saying that steam has been detected from a reprocessing facility at North Korea's Yongbyon plant.
"Our army and people are fully ready for battle . . . against any reckless U.S. attempt for a pre-emptive attack," the North's news agency said Tuesday.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke to her Russian counterpart as part of an effort to seek a united response with "consequences" for North Korea. But U.S. officials also stressed that they are still eager for North Korea to return to multilateral disarmament talks and are not ready to declare the multi-year effort to end North Korea's nuclear program a failure.
"We feel the door does still remain open, that we're ready to engage," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. He described the Obama administration's effort now as trying to "bring international pressure to bear to get them to reverse their course."
In Tokyo, a former defense minister and ruling party lawmaker said Japan should consider developing the ability to conduct preemptive strikes against North Korea, even though Japan's constitution prohibits it from taking offensive military action.
North Korea is thought to possess more than 200 mid-range Nodong missiles that can strike nearly any part of Japan. The Japanese government, which has invested billions of dollars in a U.S.-made antimissile defense system, is concerned that the North is making progress in designing nuclear warheads that could fit atop its missiles.
"We must look at active missile defense such as attacking an enemy's territory and bases," the former defense minister, Gen Nakatani, said at a meeting of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
In China, where condemnation of the North's nuclear test was surprisingly swift and unambiguous, the state media on Tuesday printed strong reprimands of North Korea from other countries. The shower of criticism was far different from the reaction to North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, when the Chinese media blamed the United States for provoking Pyongyang by cutting off aid.
"This may well be a reflection of Beijing's frustrations for not being able to assert control and influence over North Korea," said Wenran Jiang, research chair of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.
China remains North Korea's closest ally and principal economic patron. But Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said she was confident that China would support a tough response. "I do believe that China understands the gravity of this situation and are prepared to work constructively with us and others to send a very strong message to North Korea," she told CNN.
South Korea had long resisted U.S. pressure to join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which was created in 2003 by President George W. Bush and includes more than 90 countries that have agreed to stop and inspect suspicious cargo on sea and land.
Seoul was reluctant to rile North Korea, which repeatedly said it would regard the South's participation in the effort as a "declaration of war." But North Korea's second nuclear test nudged Seoul Korea to change its policy.
North Korea has long been suspected of shipping or flying missiles to customers in the Middle East and South Asia.
As a member of the security initiative, South Korea is likely to receive intelligence information from the United States, Japan and other countries about ships leaving North Korean ports that may be carrying such goods, a government official said in Tokyo.
Joining the international interdiction effort "is a natural obligation for a mature country," said South Korea's foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan. Even before Monday's nuclear test, peaceful coexistence on the Korean Peninsula had been sorely tested this spring. The North launched a long-range missile, detained a South Korean citizen, kicked out U.N. nuclear inspectors, restarted a plutonium factory and halted the six-nation negotiations on its nuclear program.
"Inter-Korean relations have hit rock bottom," said Yun Duk-min, professor of international politics at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, a government think tank in Seoul. "So it is the right thing to join PSI, even if North Korea reacts with resistance."
Staff writers Glenn Kessler 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.