updated 10/4/2006 12:52:28 AM ET 2006-10-04T04:52:28

North Korea triggered global alarm on Tuesday by saying it will conduct a nuclear test, a key step in the manufacture of atomic bombs that it views as a deterrent against any U.S. attack. But the North also said it was committed to nuclear disarmament, suggesting a willingness to negotiate.

The contradictory statement fits a North Korean pattern of ratcheting up tension on the Korean Peninsula, a Cold War-era flashpoint, in an attempt to win concessions such as economic aid. The strategy has had mixed results in recent years as the totalitarian regime sinks deeper into isolation and poverty, with China serving as its lifeline for food and fuel.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the announcement “a very provocative act” and urged Asian nations to rethink their relationships with North Korea.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called for a “cool-headed and stern” response, his office said. Roh will hold summits with the leaders of Japan and China next week, his office said Wednesday.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country would find it unacceptable if North Korea tested a nuclear weapon.

Deepening standoff
The North’s announcement came as the standoff deepened over Iran’s nuclear program, with senior U.N. diplomats saying six world powers would begin negotiations Friday in London on possibly imposing sanctions against Tehran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment.

It was the first time the North had publicly announced its intent to conduct a nuclear test. Previously, it had warned that it might conduct a test, depending on U.S. actions.

“The U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel the DPRK to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a self-defense measure in response,” said a statement by the North’s Foreign Ministry and carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. DPRK stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.

Yet it said it wanted to “settle hostile relations” between the North and the United States, and that it “will do its utmost to realize the denuclearization of the peninsula.”

Many North Korea watchers believe the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Il, knows that all-out confrontation with the United States would lead to his destruction. Even if Kim seeks negotiations, though, the risk of a miscalculation that spirals out of control cannot be ruled out.

The North Korean statement did not say when a nuclear test might occur, but the prospect drew rebukes from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. The allies, along with China and Russia, had participated in the stalled six-party talks aimed at getting the North to give up its nuclear ambitions.

The announcement was not a big surprise to many observers of North Korea because U.S. intelligence reports previously had indicated that Pyongyang might be preparing a nuclear test. Many experts believe the North has enough radioactive material to build at least a half-dozen or more nuclear weapons.

“They are an active proliferator,” said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. “And were they to test and were they then to proliferate those technologies, we’d be living with a proliferator and obviously we’d be living in a somewhat different world.”

Rumsfeld, in Managua, Nicaragua, for meetings with Central and South American foreign ministers, declined to say whether Pyongyang’s announcement had triggered any changes in the U.S. alert status.

During a visit to Cairo, Egypt, Rice said the United States would have to assess its options if the North carries out the test, without detailing what those options were. She stressed, however, that a North Korean test was an issue “for the neighborhood” and not just for the United States.

“It would be a very provocative act,” Rice said. “A North Korean nuclear test ... would create a qualitatively different situation on the Korean peninsula,” Rice said. “I think that you would see that a number of states in the region would need to reassess where they are now with North Korea.”

The remarks appeared directed primarily at China and South Korea.

The White House, which has denied it has any intention of attacking the communist nation, also denounced the threat.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said a test “would be directly contrary to the interests of all of North Korea’s neighbors and to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.”

South Korea said it won’t tolerate North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and the presidential office said the country had raised its “security level.”

“If North Korea pushes ahead with a nuclear test, North Korea should take full responsibility for all consequences,” said South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Choo Kyu-ho.

The United States keeps about 29,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

The Japanese prime minister said North Korea’s announcement was “extremely regrettable.” Abe was responding to questions in parliament.

“Naturally, we simply could not accept if North Korea were to conduct a nuclear test,” he said.

China, North Korea’s ally and chief benefactor, had no immediate comment. North Korea counters U.S. influence in the region, but China is believed to be increasingly frustrated with North Korea’s go-it-alone belligerence.

In Finland, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said such a test “is always bad news.”

‘Gravely concerned’
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he was “gravely concerned” by the reports of a North Korean test. “Such a test would pose a threat to peace and security in Asia and the world,” he said in a statement.

In a worst-case scenario, a North Korean nuclear test could prompt Japan to seek its own nuclear deterrent, intensifying historical tensions with China and South Korea, both of which suffered under Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century.

A test could also strain the alliance between the United States and South Korea, which has sought to engage its neighbor.

The United States is likely to seek a military solution to the North Korean problem only as a last resort, partly because of the burden of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton raised the issue before a regularly scheduled meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday. He said he urged members “to come up not just with a knee-jerk reaction ... but to develop a coherent strategy to convince them that it’s not in their interest to engage in nuclear testing.”

But France’s U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said he wants a swift council statement, and China’s U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said the best place to deal with the threat is in the six-party talks. Wang urged stepped up efforts to get the North to return to the stalled talks.

After a brief discussion, members decided to meet Wednesday morning to address the issue.

North Korea has sometimes made a splash with statements or military actions on important anniversaries at home, or political events such as elections in South Korea and the United States.

The test declaration came ahead of congressional elections in the United States in November and shortly before the expected election of South Korea’s foreign minister, Ban Ki-Moon, as secretary-general of the United Nations.

Missile tests
North Korea staged a series of missile tests to coincide with July 4, needling the United States on its Independence Day. But no talks or concessions were forthcoming.

Six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear activity have been stalled for almost a year. Pyongyang skipped the talks in protest over U.S. financial restrictions imposed for alleged illegal activity, including money laundering and counterfeiting.

“If they feel they are not getting interaction with us, they tend to do things to get our attention,” said Charles Kartman, a U.S. nuclear negotiator with North Korea under the Clinton administration. “The tools that they have are all bad ones. They don’t really have anything else going.”

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