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North Korea Nuke Test Threat Should Be Taken Seriously, Analysts say

Satellite image of North Korea's nuclear facility, Yongbyon.
by Simon Martin
Seoul (AFP) Oct 03, 2006
North Korea's threat on Tuesday to carry out a nuclear weapons test should be taken very seriously, analysts say. "I don't think we can interpret it as a negotiating tactic given that they did not get the response they wanted from the missile launches," said Peter Beck, director for Northeast Asia of the International Crisis Group. "It's a disturbing development."

Two Korean analysts also said a test was a possibility, perhaps before the US mid-term elections in November.

North Korea's foreign ministry announced it would carry out a nuclear weapons test in response to threats and sanctions from the United States, which it said was trying to topple its communist regime.

No date or time was given.

A UN Security Council resolution imposing weapons-related sanctions after the North test-fired seven missiles in July was a de facto "declaration of war," the ministry said.

Beck said the announcement means the North has essentially given up on negotiating with the Bush administration, which has been trying in vain to bring Pyongyang back to six-nation talks on eliminating its nuclear program.

"When they launched the missiles I thought they were playing a game of brinkmanship to get their (US's) attention... this statement, coming from the foreign ministry, you have to take it seriously," he told AFP.

Beck said a nuclear test was technically easier than a missile launch and the North had had more than a decade to get ready for it. "We have to take the threat very seriously."

He said the North had "tested the waters" with its missile launches and there had since been no significant curtailment of energy shipments from Beijing.

"The only thing standing between them and a test is Beijing, which could cut off fuel shipments. That would get the North's attention."

Beck, whose Brussels-based organisation works on global conflict resolution, said a test would gain the North nothing externally. "It will only further isolate them and move them further into pariah status."

He said it might be planned for domestic purposes, possibly to keep the powerful army happy or to rally the public.

"The possibility of North Korea carrying out a nuclear test is quite high as the United States has made it clear that it would not accept Pyongyang's demand for lifting the financial sanctions," said Professor Kim Yeon-Chul of Korea University.

The US imposed sanctions on a Macau bank accused of laundering money for the North in September 2005, the same month that Pyongyang agreed in principle at the six-nation talks to scrap its nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits and security guarantees.

"North Korea wants to gain an upper hand in future negotiations with the United States, with nuclear weapons at its hand," Kim said.

Professor Lee Chul-Ki of Dongguk University said the announcement aimed to influence US public opinion before the November elections.

"There is a possibility that North Korea may take the action (nuclear testing) ahead of the November mid-term election in the United States unless Washington takes clear steps toward direct negotiations."

John Swenson-Wright, of the Chatham House international affairs think-tank in London, said North Korea's threat should not be underestimated but he would be surprised if it carried it out.

The threat could have resulted from frustration at the lack of progress in the six-party talks but also with an eye on the mid-term elections, he added.

With the fall-out from the missile launches and the White House's focus on curbing counterfeiting and access to businesses used by top leaders, Pyongyang was attempting to "get the agenda back on their own terms and raise international awareness," he said.

"I would be surprised if they went ahead and tested. It exposes them to a great deal of risk, far more than the missile launch..."

But he said the North was aware that Bush was committed in Iraq and facing a potential nuclear threat from Iran.

"This is probably part diplomatic brinkmanship... this is an effort by Pyongyang to say, 'Take us seriously'," he said.

To defuse the threat, "I think the Americans are going to have to move pretty quickly to put something on the table that looks attractive to the North Koreans."

earlier related report
North Korea Close To Nuke Test
by Jong-Heon Lee - UPI Correspondent
Seoul (UPI) Oct 03 - North Korea Tuesday announced its plan to conduct a nuclear test to bolster its deterrent against U.S.-led moves to "isolate and stifle" the communist regime, referring to financial sanctions. But the statement issued by Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry said North Korea would not use nuclear weapons first and would not allow the transfer of nuclear materials.

North Korea "will in the future conduct a nuclear test under the condition where safety is firmly guaranteed," said the statement carried by the North's major state-run media. The statement gave no precise date of when a nuclear test would occur.

According to the statement, the nuclear test is aimed at "bolstering the war deterrent for self-defense" in the face of growing threats from the United States.

"The U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel the DPRK (North Korea) to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defense," it said.

The North has "already declared that it would take all necessary countermeasures to defend the sovereignty of the country and the dignity of the nation from the Bush administration's vicious hostile actions," the statement said.

This is the first time the North has announced plans to conduct a nuclear test. The North declared its possession of nuclear weapons in February 2005, but the claim has not been independently verified. The country has yet to conduct any known tests.

"The DPRK officially announced that it manufactured up-to-date nuclear weapons after going through transparent (and) legitimate processes to cope with the U.S. escalated threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure," the statement said. "The already declared possession of nuclear weapons presupposes the nuclear test.

"Nuclear weapons will serve as reliable war deterrent for protecting the supreme interests of the state and the security of the (North) Korean nation from the U.S. threat of aggression and averting a new war and firmly safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean peninsula under any circumstances," the statement continued.

But the Foreign Ministry statement said the North "would never use nuclear weapons first, but strictly prohibit any threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear transfer."

The North also promised to "do its utmost to realize the denuclearization of the peninsula and give impetus to the worldwide nuclear disarmament and the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons."

South Korean officials consider the North's statement as yet another case of typical Pyongyang brinkmanship aimed at extracting concessions from the United States, because it failed to provide any specific date for a nuclear test and pledged the denuclearization of the peninsula.

"The North's announcement of its nuclear test plan reflects its intension to grab Washington's immediate attention and direct talks with it over the nuclear issue," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University.

But officials and analysts could not rule out the possibility of real action by the North, which could bring the peninsula into a deeper security crisis.

Pyongyang's announcement comes amid reports of suspicious movement at suspected nuclear test sites in the communist state, suggesting that it may be preparing to conduct an underground test.

According to Seoul's Munhwa Ilbo daily last week, North Korea was building as many as five tunnels that could be used for an underground nuclear test. "These tunnels can very well be a new missile base, but it is also possible that it could be one of the nuclear test facilities," a South Korean official was quoted as saying.

Nam Sung-wook, a Korea University professor, one of the few analysts in Seoul who predicted Pyongyang's missile launches in July, has warned that the North could cross a red line by testing its nuclear weapons.

South Korea's earthquake center has stepped up vigilance for the North's nuclear test, monitoring the North's geological pulse with seismic sensors and sound detectors, officials said.

The Seoul government will convene an emergency meeting of Cabinet ministers early Wednesday to discuss the North's nuclear threats.

The North's statement has embarrassed Seoul officials, who have come up with "comprehensive" proposals to resolve the years-long nuclear standoff, calling for Washington's patience.

In a television interview last week, President Roh Moo-hyun said Seoul has informed the North of the proposal, and expressed hope Pyongyang would respond positively. The proposal was considered one of the last opportunities for South Korea to take the lead in solving the nuclear crisis peacefully and diplomatically.

The United States has warned that the North would not be able to avoid stronger punitive measures if it went ahead with a nuclear test. The United States and other countries have already imposed financial sanctions on the North for its missile tests in July, which are believed to have choked Pyongyang's cash flow.

Some hard-liners in Washington and Japan have called for a pre-emptive attack on the North's nuclear sites in the case of an imminent threat.

Source: United Press International

Source: Agence France-Presse

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