North Korea Plans to Test Nuclear Weapon

North Korea has alarmed the world by announcing it intends to a carry out a test of a nuclear weapon soon. The United States and other nations in the region have expressed concern, saying the move would be unacceptable and a threat to peace.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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An alarming announcement today from North Korea. The country says that it intends to carry out a test of a nuclear weapon. In a statement read on television, the government of North Korea said the test is necessary in the face of an extreme threat of nuclear war by the United States. The U.S. responded by saying such a test would pose an unacceptable threat to peace and stability.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

MIKE SHUSTER: North Korea did not say when it intends to test a nuclear bomb, and it has threatened to take such a step in the past. But the wording of today's announcement is North Korea's most unambiguous to date. It came from North Korea's Foreign Ministry and was made public by a North Korean television news reader.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

SHUSTER: The U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel us to conduct a nuclear test, the news reader said. This is an essential process for bolstering our nuclear deterrent as a self defense measure, the statement continued.

Governments around the world viewed these words with great concern. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling in the Middle East, said a test would be extremely provocative, and the State Department released a statement warning that a North Korean nuclear test would pose an unacceptable threat.

At the United Nations, U.S. ambassador John Bolton linked the North Korean ballistic missile tests last July to today's threat and appealed for the Security Council to take swift action.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (U.S. Ambassador, United Nations): Given the very strong action by the Council in July condemning the North Korean ballistic missile tests, I think it's important that we're prepared to follow up here. Obviously, the ballistic missiles if mated with nuclear weapons would be a very grave threat to international peace and security.

SHUSTER: The government of South Korea increased its level of alert after the North Korean declaration. There was also alarm in Japan where the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said his government would not tolerate such a test.

Prime Minister SHINZO ABE (Japan): (Speaking foreign language)

SHUSTER: If they carry out a test, Abe said, they will receive a stern response from the entire international community. It is unforgivable that they should respond to the concerns of the international community in this fashion, Abe added.

And in Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appealed for the resurrection of the Six Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, which involved the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, Russia and China. That process has been stalled for the past year.

Mr. SERGEI LAVROV (Foreign minister, Russia): (Speaking foreign language)

SHUSTER: We, along with other participants of the Six Party Talks, are working with Pyongyang in order that they show restraint and avoid abrupt moves, Lavrov said. Adding, direct contacts between the U.S. and North Korea are needed.

This is not the first time that North Korea has threatened a nuclear test. Last year, U.S. surveillance satellites detected unusual activity at a remote mountain site in North Korea and analysts suggested that might be preparations for a nuclear test.

Similar reports emerged about another site last month. John Wolfsthal at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has visited some of North Korea's nuclear facilities. He says the U.S. may be in the dark about where a nuclear test could be carried out in North Korea.

Mr. JOHN WOLFSTHAL (Center for Strategic and International Studies): I don't think the U.S. intelligence community has a good picture where the North Koreans might conduct a nuclear test. Our intelligence on their nuclear facilities is okay, but it's not great. We know that there are certain test facilities associated with the nuclear program, but we don't have any confidence that we know them all, just as we don't have confidence that we know all of their nuclear production facilities.

SHUSTER: North Korea is believed to have accumulated enough plutonium for six to twelve nuclear weapons. The threat to carry out a nuclear test has stimulated talk in some nations, including Japan, of a preemptive strike to prevent such a test.

The U.S. considered such a strike when it became clear China might carry out a nuclear test in the 1960s, but both President Kennedy and President Johnson rejected that option. John Wolfsthal believes no such option exists today.

Mr. WOLFSTHAL: Unless we are prepared to fight a second Korean War, we really don't have the ability or the luxury of considering disarming first strikes. To say nothing of the fact that we wouldn't necessarily even know where to strike.

The Bush administration, I think, has come to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and we may now be facing the final step in that path by North Korea trying to conduct a nuclear test and establish itself publicly as a nuclear weapons state.

SHUSTER: Analysts believe, though, that if Pyongyang tests, the U.S. will do its utmost to organize the economic strangulation of the North Korean state, including pressing China to close its border with North Korea and cut off vital shipments of food and fuel.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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