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N. Korea reveals nuclear test plans

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- An angry confrontation erupted yesterday over North Korea's vow to test a nuclear warhead in "self-defense" against the "extreme threat of a nuclear war" by the United States.

The announcement, which threatened to plunge the region into a destabilizing arms race, was called "reckless" and "unacceptable" by the United States.

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Such a test would mark a serious setback in the long U.S. effort to contain the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and would increase pressure on Japan and South Korea to develop their nuclear arsenals, analysts said.

It also could strengthen the suspected determination of Iran to develop nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community.

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More immediately, a North Korean nuclear test, which has been rumored for weeks, would signal that nation's intention to pursue a nuclear war-fighting capability. The United States recently began moving additional ballistic missile defense weapons into the region.

"I think the North Koreans would basically recognize that this is the end of negotiations," said Robert J. Einhorn, a retired senior U.S. arms negotiator. Even the North Koreans must recognize that "no one is going to get pushed into further concessions at this stage," said Einhorn, senior counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

South Korea announced yesterday that it was stepping up security in reaction, and Japan called the North Korean action "totally unacceptable" and said it would react "sternly" if the test was conducted.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that it is "understandable" that the North Korean announcement prompted diplomatic protests across the region.

If North Korea tests and helps spread nuclear weapons, Rumsfeld said in Nicaragua, "obviously, we'd be living in a somewhat different world."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said a nuclear test would be "a very provocative act" that would lead the United States to "assess what options we have."

The United Nations Security Council is expected to take up the issue today.

North Korea is thought to have built or obtained nuclear weapons in the 1990s, and most intelligence estimates put its nuclear arsenal of primitive implosion-type devices at a dozen or so weapons. North Korea also has ballistic missiles capable of striking South Korea and Japan.

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Most analysts doubt that North Korea has miniaturized a nuclear warhead so that it could be carried on a missile. In theory, a long-range North Korean missile, the Taepodong-2, could strike targets in the western United States, but it is not judged powerful enough to carry a warhead.

A July 4 test of the Taepodong-2 put a scare into the region, even though it failed when its engines shut down and it fell into the Sea of Japan 42 seconds after launch. The test of that missile and a half-dozen others drew sharp rebukes from Japan, South Korea and the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. military officials were watching the test carefully and drew a sobering lesson for American defenses, which are based on a rudimentary system of ground-based interceptors.

The time to respond is "exceedingly short," Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific, said in Washington last week.

"Once the missile ignites, we're talking about seconds" remaining to shoot it down, he said. "There's very little time for mulling over or consultation."

Nevertheless, the United States recently began moving new missile defense weapons into the region under an agreement with Japan, which, along with South Korea has expressed extreme concern about North Korea's weapons programs.

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In the first deployments, Patriot PAC-3 missile interceptors will be placed on the southern island of Okinawa. More than 33,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Japan.

The ambiguous nature of the North Korean announcement underscored how little the outside world knows about the reclusive communist government. Analysts seemed to be divided about whether the impending test is necessary to certify a new nuclear weapons design or whether it is intended as a diplomatic jolt to get the world's attention.

According to a report released yesterday by the House Intelligence Committee, the United States "lacks critical information needed for analysts to make some key judgments about North Korea." In trying to assess North Korea's intentions and military capabilities, the report said, "there are significant information gaps."

Fallon said last week that he had "very little insight" into the North Korean government. His forces are responsible for monitoring North Korean shipping to prevent the government from exporting nuclear or other weapons technology, but he has little idea what North Korean ships carry "except what we can see from the outside," Fallon said.

If North Korean weapons designers have made a smaller version of their basic implosion-type nuclear device, which usually weighs about 1,000 pounds, it will need to be tested, said Robert Norris, a veteran nuclear weapons expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit organization in Washington.

"It's kind of a tricky design," said Norris, and although it could be tested in laboratory experiments and simulations, "nothing beats a full-scale test."

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Others speculated that by announcing the test, North Korea might be trying to regain diplomatic center stage in the long struggle over its nuclear weapons program.

The so-called six-party talks, involving North and South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the United States, ended more than a year ago when North Korea walked out after the United States imposed financial restrictions because of the government's suspected counterfeiting of U.S. $100 bills.

North Korea has instead sought direct talks with the United States, which the Bush administration has resisted.

While the talks have been stalled, the world's attention has been on the war in Iraq, Iran's nuclear program and the war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah.

"The North Koreans may feel they have to go up one rung on the escalation ladder," said Charles D. Ferguson, a senior nuclear arms analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "I think this may have more to do with diplomatic signaling than any technical reason."

Ferguson said it is also likely that North Korea is working to reduce the size and weight of its warhead design, and to boost the power of the Taepodong-2 to enable it to carry a warhead as far as the U.S. West Coast.

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The greater danger, Ferguson said, is that a nuclear test would "open a crack" in the international nuclear test moratorium, with all current nuclear power states seeking to test new designs.

The Bush administration has sought congressional approval to begin designing and eventually testing a nuclear "bunker-buster" weapon for deeply buried targets. It has also sought funding to work on new low-yield nuclear weapons. Congress has not approved funding for either initiative.

david.wood@baltsun.com

North Korea's nuclear threat

1993:

North Korea shocks world by saying it will quit Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, later suspends its withdrawal.

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1994:

North Korea and the U.S. sign agreement in Geneva. North pledges to freeze, eventually dismantle, nuclear weapons program in exchange for help building two power-producing nuclear reactors.

Aug. 31, 1998:

North Korea fires a multistage Taepodong-1 missile over Japan.

Sept. 13, 1999:

North Korea pledges to freeze long-range missile tests.

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Sept. 17, 1999:

President Clinton agrees to first major easing of economic sanctions against North Korea since Korean War's end in 1953.

December 2001:

President Bush warns Iraq and North Korea will be "held accountable" if they develop weapons of mass destruction.

Jan. 29, 2002:

Bush labels North Korea, Iran and Iraq an "axis of evil."

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Oct. 4, 2002:

North Korea tells visiting U.S. delegation it has second covert nuclear weapons program.

Jan. 10, 2003:

North Korea says it will withdraw from Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

April 24, 2003

North Korea says it has nuclear weapons and may test, export or use them depending on U.S. actions.

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Aug. 27-29, 2003:

North Korea joins first round of six-nation nuclear talks in Beijing, which include China, U.S. Japan, Russia and South Korea.

May 2005:

North Korea fires a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan.

Sept. 19, 2005:

North Korea pledges to dismantle nuclear programs in exchange for pledges of energy assistance; U.S. pledges not to invade and to respect North's sovereignty in an agreement ending talks.

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Jan. 3, 2006:

North Korea says it won't return to talks unless the U.S. lifts sanctions imposed for its alleged currency counterfeiting and other illegal activities.

July 5:

North Korea launches seven missiles into the Sea of Japan, including a Taepodong-2.

Sept. 26:

North Korea rejects further talks on its nuclear program, claims Washington wants to rule the world.

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[ Associated Press]



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