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Neighbours prep military after nuke test

13 February 2013, 11:06

Seoul - North Korea's neighbours bolstered their military preparations and mobilised scientists on Wednesday to determine whether Pyongyang's third nuclear test, conducted in defiance of UN warnings, was as successful as the North claimed.

The detonation was also the focus of global diplomatic manoeuvres, with US Secretary of State John Kerry reaching out to counterparts in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to assure US allies in the region and levelled a warning of "firm action."

"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations," Obama said.

"Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defence and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

'First response' to US threats

North Korea's third nuclear test, detonated on Tuesday at a remote underground site in the northeast, was a crucial step toward its goal of building a bomb small enough to be fitted on a missile capable of striking the United States. But just what happened in the test is still unknown to outsiders.

North Korea said the atomic test was merely its "first response" to what it called US threats and will continue with unspecified "second and third measures of greater intensity" if Washington maintains its hostility.

South Korea on Wednesday used aircraft and ships, as well specialists on the ground, to collect air samples to analyze possibly increased radiation from the test, according to Seoul's Defence Ministry.

Japanese fighter jets were dispatched immediately after the test to collect atmospheric samples. Japan has also established monitoring posts, including one on its northwest coast, to collect similar data.

Underground nuclear tests often release radioactive elements into the atmosphere that can be analysed to determine key details about the blast.

Trying to enrich uranium

One of the main points that intelligence officials want to know is whether the device was a plutonium bomb or one that used highly enriched uranium, which would be a first for North Korea.

In 2006 and 2009, North Korea is believed to have tested devices made of plutonium. But in 2010, Pyongyang revealed it was trying to enrich uranium, which would be a second source of nuclear bomb-making materials - a worrying development for the United States and its allies.

Generally, it takes about two days for such radioactive by-products from the North's test site to reach South Korea, Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said on Wednesday.

Both South Korea and the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization confirmed increased radiation levels following the North's 2006 nuclear test but didn't find anything in 2009.

S Korea deploys cruise missiles

Experts in Seoul said the North plugged an underground testing tunnel in 2009 so tightly that no radioactive gas escaped.

The seismic event on Tuesday was "roughly twice as big as what happened in 2009," Lassina Zerbo, head of CTBTO's international data centre, said in a briefing. "The smoking gun will be the radio nuclides potentially released ... We cannot say anything about that before two or three days."

South Korea's Defence Ministry said on Wednesday it has deployed cruise missiles with "world-class accuracy and destructive power" that are capable of hitting any target in North Korea at any time.

Tuesday's test, which set off powerful seismic waves that were measured using earthquake-detection sensors, drew immediate condemnation from Washington, the UN and others.

Even North Korea's only major ally, China, summoned the North's ambassador for a dressing-down.

But the Obama administration's options for a response are limited, and a US military strike is highly unlikely.

China resists measures to cut-off N Korea

In an emergency session, the UN Security Council unanimously said the test poses "a clear threat to international peace and security" and pledged further action.

US Ambassador Susan Rice said the North's continued work on its nuclear and missile programmes threatens regional and international peace and "the security of a number of countries including the United States."

"They will not be tolerated," she said, "and they will be met with North Korea's increasing isolation and pressure under United Nations sanctions."

It remains to be seen, however, whether China will sign on to any new, binding global sanctions. Beijing, Pyongyang's primary trading partner, has resisted measures that would cut off North Korea's economy completely.

China expressed firm opposition to Tuesday's test but called for a calm response by all sides.

N Korea dismisses 'double standards'

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi summoned North Korea's ambassador and delivered a "stern representation" and demanded that North Korea "swiftly return to the correct channel of dialogue and negotiation," the ministry said in a statement.

The test was a defiant North Korean response to UN orders that it shut down its atomic activity or face more sanctions and international isolation.

It will likely draw more sanctions from the United States and other countries at a time when North Korea is trying to rebuild its moribund economy and expand its engagement with the outside world.

Several UN resolutions bar North Korea from conducting nuclear or missile tests because the Security Council considers Pyongyang a would-be proliferator of weapons of mass destruction and its nuclear testing a threat to international peace and stability.

North Korea dismisses that as a double standard, and claims the right to build nuclear weapons as a defence against the United States, which it has seen as Enemy No. 1 since the 1950-53 Korean War. The US stations more than 28 000 troops in South Korea to protect its ally.

Nuclear ambitions

Tuesday's test is North Korea's first since young leader Kim Jong-Un took power of a country long estranged from the West. The test will likely be portrayed in North Korea as a strong move to defend the nation against foreign aggression, particularly from the US.

"The test was conducted in a safe and perfect way on a high level, with the use of a smaller and light A-bomb, unlike the previous ones, yet with great explosive power," North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said.

The UN Security Council recently punished North Korea for a rocket launch in December that the UN and Washington called a cover for a banned long-range missile test.

Pyongyang said it was a peaceful launch of a satellite into space. In condemning that launch, the council demanded a stop to future launches and ordered North Korea to respect a ban on nuclear activity - or face "significant action" by the UN.

The timing of Tuesday's test is significant. Besides Obama's speech, it came only days before the Saturday birthday of Kim Jong-Un's father, late leader Kim Jong Il, whose memory North Korean propaganda has repeatedly linked to the country's nuclear ambitions.

This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, and in late February, South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye will be inaugurated.

Enough plutonium for 4-8 bombs

The National Intelligence Service in Seoul told lawmakers that North Korea may conduct an additional nuclear test and test-launch a ballistic missile in response to UN talks about imposing more sanctions, according to the office of South Korean lawmaker Jung Chung-rae, who attended the private meeting.

Analysts have also previously speculated that Pyongyang might conduct multiple tests, possibly of plutonium and uranium devices.

North Korea is estimated to have enough weaponized plutonium for four to eight bombs, according to American nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who has visited the North's nuclear facilities.

It wasn't immediately clear to outside experts whether the device exploded on Tuesday was small enough to fit on a missile and whether it was fuelled by plutonium or uranium.

A successful test would take North Korean scientists a step closer to building a nuclear warhead that can reach US shores - seen as the ultimate goal of North Korea's nuclear programme.

Uranium would be a worry because plutonium facilities are large and produce detectable radiation, making it easier for outsiders to find and monitor.

However, uranium centrifuges can be hidden from satellites, drones and nuclear inspectors in caves, tunnels and other hard-to-reach places. Highly enriched uranium also is easier than plutonium to engineer into a weapon.

- AP


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