- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

SEOUL — North Korea triggered global alarm yesterday by saying it will conduct a nuclear test to improve its deterrence against any U.S. attack. But the North also said it was committed to nuclear disarmament, suggesting a willingness to negotiate.

The contradictory statement fits a North Korean pattern of ratcheting up tension on the Korean Peninsula to win concessions such as economic aid.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called North Korea’s announcement “a very provocative act.”

It was the first time the North had publicly announced its intent to explode a nuclear device. Previously, it had warned that it might conduct a test, depending on U.S. actions.

“The U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel the DPRK to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a self-defense measure in response,” said a statement by the North’s Foreign Ministry that was carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. DPRK stands for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.

Yet it said that it wanted to “settle hostile relations” between the North and the United States, and that it “will do its utmost to realize the denuclearization of the peninsula.”

Many North Korea watchers think the country’s dictator, Kim Jong-il, knows that all-out confrontation with the United States would lead to his destruction. But even if Mr. Kim seeks negotiations, the risk of a miscalculation that spirals out of control cannot be ruled out.

A technical error in the nuclear test could release radiation into the atmosphere that would travel far beyond North Korea’s borders, analysts say.

The suspected underground test site, near the town of Chiktong, is dug into the side of a mountain and likely zigzags down at an angle with a series of sharp turns and blast doors meant to contain the force of the explosion. The point of entry would be sealed before any explosion is set off.

But former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, said yesterday that any flaw in the site’s design could “blow everything out of the entrance,” including substantial amounts of radioactivity.

Another potential error that could send clouds of radioactivity into the air — and ultimately far beyond North Korea’s borders — would be a miscalculation in the yield of the explosion.

The limited nuclear sophistication of the North Koreans means they would aim to make a test bomb no larger than five kilotons, he said. That would produce an explosion one-third to one-fourth as powerful as the bombs that destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

“But if they [inadvertently] overdesigned the thing, that could be a worry,” Mr. Albright said. “If it’s 30 kilotons, it could blow a hole in the mountain, and if there is a fissure, radiation will escape.”

Mr. Albright said the chances of a miscalculation either in bomb or tunnel design that is major enough to set free large amounts of radioactivity were small but could not be ruled out.

The North Korean statement did not say when a nuclear test might be conducted, but the prospect drew rebukes from Japan, South Korea and the United States. The allies, as well as China and Russia, had participated in the stalled six-party talks aimed at getting the North to give up its nuclear ambitions.

In Cairo, Miss Rice said the United States would have to assess its options if the North carries out the test, without detailing what those options were. She stressed, however, that a North Korean test was an issue “for the neighborhood” and not just for the United States.

“It would be a very provocative act,” Miss Rice said. Still, she said, “they have not yet done it.”

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