October 4, 2006

North Koreans Say They Plan a Nuclear Test

By DAVID E. SANGER <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/david_e_sanger/index.html?inline=nyt-per&gt;

WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 — North Korea <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/northkorea/index.html?inline=nyt-geo&gt; announced Tuesday that it intended to conduct its first nuclear test, prompting warnings from Tokyo to Washington that an underground explosion would lead to a sharp response and could undermine the security balance in Asia.

North Korea did not say when it would try to test a weapon, and experts inside and outside the Bush administration said the announcement itself was a negotiating ploy, intended to force the White House into lifting economic sanctions and holding one-on-one talks with North Korea.

American intelligence officials said they saw no signs that a test was imminent. But they cautioned that two weeks ago, American officials who had reviewed recent intelligence reports said American spy satellites had picked up evidence of indeterminate activity around what is thought to be North Korea’s main test site. It was unclear to them whether the activity was part of plans for a test, or perhaps a feint related to last month’s visit to Washington by President Roh Moo-hyun <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/r/roh_moo_hyun/index.html?inline=nyt-per&gt; of South Korea <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/southkorea/index.html?inline=nyt-geo&gt;.

At that meeting, Mr. Bush and Mr. Roh discussed the possibility of a test, and Mr. Roh said the event would “change the nature” of South Korea’s policy of economic engagement with the North, Mr. Roh told Americans he met afterward.

But the two leaders did not appear to have a coordinated strategy, and a senior Asian diplomat in Washington said Tuesday that “no one is quite sure how to respond” if the North conducted a test in the near future.

In public, the Bush administration’s response was muted and left the American response as unclear as the North Korean threat.

North Korea has long possessed plutonium fuel to manufacture nuclear weapons, and American intelligence agencies say they believe the country expanded its fuel stockpile in recent years so that it could now make roughly six to eight weapons, and perhaps more. That inventory was increased, North Korea says, after the eviction of international inspectors in early 2003, just as the Bush administration was focused on the invasion of Iraq.

North Korea claimed more than a year ago that it possessed a “nuclear deterrent,” but the absence of a test has created a diplomatic ambiguity, allowing China <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/china/index.html?inline=nyt-geo&gt; to raise doubts about how far the country had progressed, and giving Washington room after President Bush’s declaration in his first term that he would never “tolerate” a nuclear-armed North Korea.

It is unclear whether the North Koreans have determined that ambiguity is no longer in their interests. In a statement issued Tuesday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that “the U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel the D.P.R.K. to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a self-defense measure in response.” North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

But earlier this month a North Korean general, Ri Chan-bok, told a visiting American expert, Selig S. Harrison, that no test was necessary.

Mr. Harrison quoted General Ri as saying last week: “If we have an underground test it could have radioactive leakage. These rumors are spread by U.S. agencies to smear us. I have never heard indications of a nuclear test in our government or armed forces.”

In a statement, Frederick Jones, the National Security Council <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/n/national_security_council/index.html?inline=nyt-org&gt; spokesman, said a test would “severely undermine our confidence in North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization” and “pose a threat to peace and security in Asia and the world.”

“A provocative action of this nature would only further isolate the North Korean regime and deny the people of the North the benefits offered to them” in six-nation talks that have not reconvened in more than a year, the statement said.

But behind closed doors the announcement touched off a flurry of meetings, as officials wrestled with uncertain intelligence, questions about whether China or South Korea could prevent a test and the possibility that a test could take place before the Congressional elections.

The American statement did not draw the lines in the sand that marked the nuclear standoffs of the 1990’s, when the Clinton administration began reinforcing American forces on the Korean Peninsula in response to a threat by the North to convert its supply of spent nuclear reactor fuel into bombs.

But American officials, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak about North Korean policy, have recently said the administration assumes that sooner or later, North Korea will conduct a test. “You could argue that it wouldn’t be an all-bad thing,” one administration hawk said, “because it would finally unify the Chinese, and the Russians and the South Koreans,” all of whom have been reluctant to pressure North Korea.

Michael Green, who handled North Korea issues for the National Security Council until he left the White House last year, said, “I think that the evidence has grown, especially with the missile launch, that North Korea has its own escalation ladder, and they would agree to postpone a test only for the right price.”

Mr. Green said he thought it was unlikely that North Korea’s price would be met, and he said he thought the North had “calculated that they can take the heat from China and Japan <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/japan/index.html?inline=nyt-geo&gt;, and they are not losing much from South Korea anyway.”

In Tokyo, North Korea’s sudden announcement was the first international test for Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/a/shinzo_abe/index.html?inline=nyt-per&gt;, a nationalist who has vowed to make security a top priority. Mr. Abe warned North Korea against the test in stern terms rarely heard in the cautious language of Japanese diplomacy.

“Japan and the world absolutely will not tolerate a nuclear test,” he told reporters, in a statement worded more sharply than the Bush administration’s. “The international community would respond harshly.”

[On Wednesday, China urged North Korea to “exercise necessary calm and restraint,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said in a statement reported by Reuters from Beijing. But he also warned other countries to “peacefully resolve their mutual concerns through dialogue” and “not take actions that escalate tensions.”]

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/r/condoleezza_rice/index.html?inline=nyt-per&gt; told reporters in Cairo, where she met with several Arab counterparts on regional issues, including Iran <http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/iran/index.html?inline=nyt-geo&gt;’s nuclear program, that the announcement was disturbing and that a nuclear test would be “a very provocative act by the North Koreans.”

Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea; Martin Fackler from Tokyo; and Philip Shenon from Cairo.