Seoul (AFP) Oct 10, 2006
South Korea said Tuesday it could not rule out further North Korean nuclear tests given the communist state's large stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium, and ordered its military to stay on maximum alert. Unification Minister Lee Jong-Seok said separately the government believes North Korea did conduct a nuclear test, despite some uncertainty overseas, but could not yet say whether it was successful as the North boasts.
Seoul, still technically at war with the secretive Pyongyang regime half a century after the Korean conflict, has said it will never tolerate a nuclear-armed North.
Defence Minister Yoon Kwang-Ung summoned the meeting of about 50 senior commanders, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the army, navy and air force chiefs.
Yoon ordered the 650,000-strong military to "maintain steadfast combat readiness" to prevent North Korea miscalculating the situation.
"North Korea's nuclear test is a grave threat to stability and peace in Northeast Asia, and it is an absolutely unpardonable provocative act that defeats the expectations of our government and people," Yonhap news agency quoted him as telling the closed-door meeting.
The military chiefs assessed security and discussed the response to the announced nuclear test on Monday which shocked the world, the defence ministry said.
The military has increased troop numbers near land and sea borders, but is maintaining its normal official alert level.
Yoon told parliament there were no immediate signs the North was preparing further nuclear tests.
But he could not rule out the possibility it might attempt to test "various types" of nuclear weapons in the future, saying the regime had a stockpile of up to 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium.
"As long as it wants to have nuclear power, it would try to make efforts to have various types of nuclear weapons," he added.
Protesters again took to the streets to vent anger. About 70-80 demonstrators in central Seoul set alight a mock missile plastered with a North Korean flag and a picture of the North's leader Kim Jong-Il.
Scuffles broke out with firemen who tried to douse the blaze. Scores of people signed a "Down with Kim Jong-Il" petition.
"The government believes North Korea actually conducted a nuclear test," Unification Minister Lee, in charge of North Korean affairs, told a special parliamentary hearing.
But he said it would not recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear power until it was known whether the test was successful.
The science ministry said it plans to borrow a xenon nuclide detector from Sweden that can detect minute traces of radio-isotopes in the atmosphere, to confirm the test. It is due to arrive this week.
A North Korean official warned Tuesday his country could fire a nuclear-tipped missile unless the United States makes concessions and holds direct talks, a South Korean media report said.
Yonhap news agency quoted the unidentified official in Beijing as saying: "We hope the situation will be settled before an unhappy incident of us firing a nuclear missile occurs."
"It all depends on how the United States reacts," he said.
President Roh Moo-Hyun, under fire over his "sunshine" policy of engaging the North, met his predecessors over lunch to seek their views. Kim Dae-Jung, Kim Young-Sam and Chun Doo-Hwan attended.
Kim Young-Sam, whose 1993-98 term was marked by cold relations with the North, said the engagement policy should be renounced and all joint economic projects suspended, including the Kaesong industrial zone and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort.
The two projects launched by South Korea's Hyundai Group have been a major source of hard currency for the isolated and impoverished North. Hyundai has invested 1.5 trillion won (1.56 billion dollars) in them.
earlier related report
The Japanese government remains sceptical as to whether North Korea did conduct a nuclear test on Monday.
"We've launched T-4 planes of the Air Self-Defense Force to monitor radioactive materials in the air," Mamoru Kotaki, press secretary of the Defense Agency, told reporters.
The planes collected dust in the skies over the major Japanese islands of Kyushu, Honshu and Hokkaido at an altitude of about 3,000 meters (9,800 feet), the report said.
The material will be assessed for up to two weeks in a bid to verify North Korea's announcement that it had tested its first atom bomb, officials said.
"But even if they do not detect any unnatural radioactive materials, it would be hard to declare that Pyongyang's nuclear test a failure as it was presumably conducted underground," Defense Agency spokeswoman Yoko Yato told AFP.
"It is hard to say," if there has been a successful nuclear test as North Korea claims, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in parliament.
The United States has also been cautious about confirming North Korea's nuclear announcement.
South Korean officials said Tuesday they believed North Korea's claim was genuine, but they planned to borrow hi-tech equipment from Sweden to test the atmosphere for radioactive particles.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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