- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

SEOUL — An explosion that sent a 2-mile-wide mushroom cloud into the sky was the planned demolition of a mountain for a hydroelectric project, North Korea said yesterday, and it invited a British diplomat to visit the site.

Experts from the United States and elsewhere say they don’t believe Thursday’s blast near the Chinese border was a nuclear test.

A Bush administration official said the United States has indications the North is trying to conduct a test. The explosion and concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions sparked a heated back-and-forth between the White House and Democratic presidential challenger Sen. John Kerry.

North Korea denounced the speculation about a nuclear test as part of a “preposterous smear campaign” to divert world attention away from revelations about past South Korean nuclear activities, Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency said.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a U.S. official said it isn’t clear what happened. While the official said there isn’t any reason to believe it was a nuclear test, the official also couldn’t confirm the North Koreans’ explanation that the blast was linked to construction of a hydroelectric project.

A U.N. official said the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, which monitors nuclear activity, had not picked up any signs that the explosion was a nuclear blast.

KCNA said “blastings at construction sites of hydropower stations in the north of Korea” had taken place.

North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun told the same to visiting British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., Mr. Rammell said Mr. Paek told him the blast “wasn’t an accident, that it wasn’t a nuclear explosion, that it was a deliberate detonation of a mountain as part of a hydroelectric project.”

North Korea told Britain’s ambassador in Pyongyang, David Slinn, that he could visit the blast site as soon as today to verify its explanation, the Press Association of Britain reported.

Andrew Kennedy, head of the Asia program at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the North Korean explanation has “a ring of truth to it.”

“North Korea is usually trying to convince people that they do have a nuclear capability. … It’s not in their interest to keep a nuclear test quiet,” he added.

There was no comment from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors were told to leave North Korea after it quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty last year.

The size of the reported explosion on the 56th anniversary of the founding of North Korea had raised speculation that it might have been a nuclear test. But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Sunday there was no indication the blast was from a test.

Mr. Kerry said just the idea that the United States was thinking North Korea might test a nuclear weapon highlights a national security failure by President Bush.

On Mr. Bush’s watch, North Korea has advanced its nuclear program, Mr. Kerry said.

“North Korea’s nuclear program is well ahead of what Saddam Hussein was even suspected of doing — yet the president took his eye off the ball, wrongly ignoring this growing danger,” Mr. Kerry said. “What is unfolding in North Korea is exactly the kind of disaster that it is an American president’s solemn duty to prevent.”

In a telephone call Sunday to the New York Times, Mr. Kerry accused the administration of letting “a nuclear nightmare” develop by refusing to deal with North Korea.

Bush spokesman Scott McClellan accused Mr. Kerry of wanting to return to “the failed Clinton administration policy” on North Korea. He said that while Mr. Clinton’s 1994 agreement with North Korea calling for a freeze fell apart, Mr. Bush is trying to rally North Korea’s neighbors to pressure the country to abandon its nuclear activities.

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei yesterday chided South Korea, expressing “strong concern” that Seoul had not informed the agency of its nuclear activities. He revealed that Seoul produced more than 300 pounds of uranium metal in the 1980s.

It then used some of that metal in nuclear enrichment experiments using laser technology conducted in 2000.

Diplomats said the use of the metals developed earlier raised doubts over Seoul’s explanation that the 2000 experiments were carried out by renegade scientists.

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