- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

SEOUL — A huge mushroom cloud that reportedly billowed up from North Korea was not caused by a nuclear explosion, South Korean and U.S. officials said yesterday, but they said the cause was a mystery.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell confirmed that unusual activity had recently been detected at some of North Korea’s atomic sites, but said there was no concrete evidence the secretive regime was preparing for its first nuclear test explosion.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported yesterday that a mammoth explosion in North Korea produced a mushroom cloud more than 2 miles across on Thursday. It said the blast was stronger than an April explosion that killed 160 persons and injured an estimated 1,300 at a North Korean railway station when a train carrying oil and chemicals apparently hit power lines.

“There was no indication that was a nuclear event of any kind,” Mr. Powell said of Thursday’s incident. “Exactly what it was, we’re not sure.”

Kim Jong-min, spokesman for the South Korean presidential office, told Yonhap: “Currently, we are trying to find out in detail the exact character, cause and size of the accident, but we don’t think North Korea conducted a nuclear test.”

China’s government, which has the closest relations with North Korea, had no comment about the reported explosion.

Before Yonhap’s report, the New York Times’ yesterday reported that senior U.S. intelligence officials had seen signs of activities that some analysts thought might indicate North Korea was preparing a nuclear bomb test.

Other experts were more cautious in their assessments, but the developments were considered worrisome enough for the White House to be alerted, the Times said.

Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Powell said there were “some activities taking place at some sites that we are watching carefully, but it is not conclusive that they’re moving toward a test or they’re just doing some maintenance at that site.”

Later, on “Fox News Sunday,” Mr. Powell expressed skepticism North Korea would stage a nuclear test explosion.

The North Koreans “know this would not be a sensible step for them to take,” he said. “And it is not just the reaction that they might see in the United States; it’s their own neighbors.”

On Saturday, North Korea said recent revelations that South Korea conducted secret nuclear experiments involving uranium and plutonium made the communist state more determined to pursue its own nuclear programs.

The South Korean experiments in 1982 and 2000, which the South said did not reflect an attempt to develop weapons, are likely to further complicate six-nation talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear development.

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