Blast by N. Korea tests US policy

Overtures brought no nuclear pause; Obama promises strong response

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / May 26, 2009
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WASHINGTON - North Korea's nuclear test yesterday morning, its most defiant move since President Obama took office, presents a direct challenge to the new US administration's more conciliatory approach to ending North Korea's nuclear program, according to current and former US officials and arms control specialists.

The underground explosion, which appeared to be more powerful than the test North Korea conducted in 2006, prompted a sharp condemnation by the United Nations Security Council, while Obama pledged to redouble efforts to pressure the Communist regime to give up its nuclear program.

"North Korea's actions endanger the people of Northeast Asia, they are a blatant violation of international law, and they contradict North Korea's own prior commitments," Obama told reporters at the White House before delivering Memorial Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery. "Now, the United States and the international community must take action in response."

Obama did not specify what actions he is considering. A range of specialists suggested that moves could include banning even nonmilitary sales of goods to North Korea, and pushing China and Russia, which are North Korea's main trading partners, to increase pressure on reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

The specialists also said the test indicated that Obama's entreaties for North Korea to return to international disarmament talks - including dangling the prospect of one-on-one talks with the United States - have failed to provide even a pause in the country's nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, yesterday's test came just weeks after Obama's special envoy, Stephen W. Bosworth, was dispatched to North Korea with a message that the United States may be willing to engage in direct talks, a sign of respect that North Korea has long sought.

The Obama administration "came into office hopeful that an outreached hand would yield better results," said Michael J. Green, former senior Asia adviser to President George W. Bush. "They are now in a much more sober and realist mood. [North Korea's leaders] mean it when they say they want to establish themselves as a nuclear weapons state."

Green and others also noted that the stability of North Korea is in doubt because Kim, who is believed to be in his late 60s and to have recently suffered a stroke, has not fully prepared for a transition of power.

"You have to wonder what comes next," Green said, expressing worry that the regime could collapse. "They may be getting more aggressive to the outside world precisely because of the situation at home. They are scrambling to set up a succession to Kim Jong Il."

Monday's atomic test - which coincided with the test-firing of three short-range missiles - was conducted shortly before 10 a.m. local time about 50 miles northwest of the northern city of Kilju, said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky.

Two hours later the official North Korean news agency announced that the government "has successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of measures to bolster its nuclear deterrent for self-defense."

The US Geological Survey reported the magnitude of the explosion was 4.7 on the Richter scale, leading specialists to make preliminary conclusions that North Korea, which is suspected of having enough plutonium to make up to nine bombs, has improved its technological capability.

"The North Korean nuclear test in October 2006 only had a seismic yield of 3.6 to 4.2 on the Richter scale, essentially a fizzle, and less than one kiloton," said Philip E. Coyle, a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank. He said a yield of 4.7 this time "could suggest a yield of about five kilotons, or maybe even 10 kilotons."

Coyle, who previously ran the Nevada Test Site, where the United States conducted secret underground nuclear tests during the Cold War, said "better estimates of seismic yield will be forthcoming," adding that there are some indications the weapons did not fully detonate.

Russian specialists reported the magnitude of the test as high as 20 kilotons, comparable to the atomic bombs that United States dropped on Japan during World War II, but Coyle and others insisted those estimates were too high.

Meanwhile, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the North's test of missiles with estimated ranges of 80 miles may have been an attempt to keep US and Japanese surveillance planes away from the nuclear test site.

The global condemnation of the actions was quick and resolute. France said it would push for tougher sanctions at the United Nations, while Russia called it a "serious blow" to arms control efforts.

Meanwhile, China, a traditional North Korea ally that has joined in trying to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, said it was "resolutely opposed" to its neighbor's actions.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John F. Kerry was traveling in China and said in a statement that "North Korea's reckless, stubborn, and persistent steps to attract international attention will never buy it the security, legitimacy, and respect it seeks."

Some specialists called for quick punitive measures, including returning North Korea to the US State Department's list of countries that sponsor terrorism, which would bar it from certain aid. North Korea was removed from that list last year as an incentive to curtail its nuclear program.

"This is a multikiloton blast of reality," said Henry Sokolski, a member of the bipartisan US Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism. "We've been in denial and this should be a wakeup call. Trying to keep them from being a nuclear power is not going to happen."

But Sokolski and others acknowledge there are few alternatives to pressing ahead with diplomatic incentives in exchange for North Korea's agreement to dismantle its nuclear program - including a possible guarantee not to attack the country, which is believed to be obsessed with the prospect of an American invasion.

Using military force against North Korea would likely set off a major conflict drawing in South Korea and possibly other Asian countries, while prompting an enormous humanitarian crisis, officials said. North Korea has at least one million troops just miles from South Korea's capital of Seoul.

Harsh sanctions by themselves could backfire, forcing a regime controlled by hardliners to act out even more aggressively.

Kim "is gradually being succeeded by a coterie of hard-line loyalists and members of the Kim family," warned Victor D. Cha, former director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

For now, one senior Obama adviser said, the administration seems resigned to finding new ways to get North Korea - which also test-fired a long-range missile last month in defiance of UN resolutions - to negotiate.

"We need to reinforce our objective of achieving nuclear disarmament," said the senior administration official who is directly involved in crafting Obama's arms control policy and not authorized to speak publicly about plans. "Even if that can't be achieved immediately - even if that is going to take some time and proceed in stages - I think it is absolutely essential we not waver from that commitment."

Bryan Bender can be reached at

Senator John F. Kerry said North Korea's "reckless" steps "will never buy it the "security, legitimacy, and respect it seeks."