- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The White House yesterday said the purported nuclear device detonated by North Korea on Monday might have been a “very old and off-the-shelf” weapon, but would not confirm that it was nuclear and could not explain why the blast was so small.

Bush spokesman Tony Snow said there is a “remote possibility” that the world never will be able to determine whether North Korea succeeded in conducting a nuclear test Monday.

Mr. Snow said the test appears be on a smaller scale than claimed by North Korea.

“You could have something that is very old and off-the-shelf here as well, in which case they’ve dusted off something that is old and dormant,” he said.

Asked when the administration would know what was detonated, Mr. Snow said: “That’s really up to the scientists. They’re really trying to take a look at all the seismic and other evidence to figure out whether it was a nuclear device.

“They do know that there was a seismic event, presumably an explosion. But at this point, the analysts are being extremely careful. They want to make sure they don’t outrun the facts, and they continue to assess it.”

The Washington Times reported yesterday that U.S. intelligence agencies surmised from preliminary indications that North Korea did not conduct its first nuclear blast as Pyongyang had claimed. The officials said seismic readings show that the conventional high explosives used to create a chain reaction in a plutonium-based device were triggered, but that the blast’s readings fell shy of a typical nuclear detonation.

“There was a seismic event that registered about 4 on the Richter scale, but it still isn’t clear if it was a nuclear test. You can get that kind of seismic reading from high explosives,” one official said.

Mr. Snow said, “There’s a possibility that [scientists] will never be able to say to a complete certainly exactly what did occur.”

What the explosive was matters little, he said, “because you still have a deliberate act of provocation that has the aim of … either trying to frighten or destabilize the region.”

U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday that the working assumption is that it was some type of nuclear test.

“At this point, we can’t confirm it was a nuclear test but more than likely the North Koreans set off some type of nuclear device,” one official said.

Other data based on nuclear-particle collecting aircraft could not be analyzed in the region and had to be sent back to a laboratory in the United States. If it shows that radioactive matter was released near the site of the test, it would provide more detail on the nature of the device, U.S. officials said.

Meanwhile, Russia’s defense minister yesterday stood by Moscow’s estimate of the strength of North Korea’s nuclear test, putting the blast level at 5 to 15 kilotons. South Korea said the explosion was about 0.8 kilotons, France said it was about 0.5 kilotons and the United States said it was less than 1 kiloton.

At the upper end of Mr. Ivanov’s estimate, it exceeded the 12.5-kiloton strength of the U.S. atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima during World War II.

“One can explain this difference of judgment in terms of political reasons. Some want this test to be more powerful, others less powerful,” Mr. Ivanov said.

The minister refused to elaborate on his remarks or on how Russia came to its assessment, saying: “It’s a secret method, and I won’t tell you.”

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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