- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

SEOUL — North Korea’s neighbors reacted with fury and alarm yesterday to Pyongyang’s assertion that it had detonated a nuclear weapon, warning that the test could raise tensions across the region and beyond.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun called the test a “betrayal of the hopes of the Korean people” for a non-nuclear peninsula, saying his government “will find it difficult to stick to its engagement policy toward North Korea.”

South Korea, still technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 conflict, announced it had suspended a scheduled shipment of flood aid to the North.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, returning to Tokyo after a fence-mending trip to China and South Korea, called for “stern measures” against North Korea. He said Japan would work more closely with the United States — including on missile-defense systems — as a result.

East Asia is “entering a new, dangerous nuclear age,” he said.

Mr. Abe, who became prime minister on Sept. 26, visited the two countries as one of his first official acts in a bid to ease tensions over his predecessor’s repeated visits to a shrine honoring Japan’s World War II dead.

Speaking to reporters before leaving Seoul, Mr. Abe said North Korea’s nuclear announcement “constitutes a severe, grave threat to the international community beyond the Asian region. It is a grave challenge to nuclear nonproliferation.”

A senior Japanese official in Seoul on Sunday ruled out speculation that a North Korean nuclear test would prompt Japan to develop its own nuclear arms program.

It is “absolutely out of the question” for Japan to go nuclear, said the official, who briefed a selected group of reporters.

“Isolated politicians may say things, but Japan cannot become a nuclear power,” the official said. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still deep in our hearts. I don’t think Japan will become a nuclear power even if North Korea does test.”

The nuclear test was a particular embarrassment for China, the North’s most important source of food and oil and its main trading partner. China has hosted a series of regional talks to head off a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula and had warned North Korean leader Kim Jong-il against a nuclear test.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, who like Mr. Abe and Mr. Roh spoke by telephone with President Bush yesterday, opposed the nuclear test but also appealed for “dialogue and consultation” among the North’s neighbors.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a sharper condemnation of the test, expressing the government’s “resolute opposition” to the North’s action.

“North Korea defied the universal opposition of the international community and flagrantly conducted its test,” the ministry said. “The Chinese government strongly demands the North Korean side abide by its pledges on denuclearization and to stop any action that would worsen the situation.”

Analysts said the reported test graphically illustrated the limits of China’s influence on its secretive neighbor.

“Beijing likes having North Korea as a dog on a leash, allowing it to bark and throwing it a bone if it barks too much,” said the private intelligence service Stratfor. “But this time, the dog has apparently broken its chain.”

Seoul remained outwardly calm, with business and everyday life disrupted by only a few small demonstrations. No reports indicated radioactive fallout drifting south, but financial markets were shaken by the news. South Korea’s currency, the won, fell against the dollar.

The military activated a crisis task force and raised patrols along the border, but officials reported no sign of abnormal troop activity from the North’s side.

Early today, a mainland-controlled Hong Kong newspaper reported that Chinese defense forces have canceled leave for troops along at least part of the border with North Korea.

Seoul analysts also wondered whether China and South Korea would take other steps to curb aid and contacts with North Korea.

“North Korea has calculated that neither China nor South Korea will forsake them, or that they will be able to ride it out if they do,” said Peter Beck, head of the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group, a think tank.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said past efforts to pressure the North had failed.

“Even if China stops all shipments and aid, it is unlikely to result in serious internal instability. Ten years ago, people were dying in large numbers [in North Korea], and nothing happened,” Mr. Lankov said.

Attention in South Korea was focused on what Pyongyang might do next.

“North Korea’s last red line would be selling nuclear arms to others,” said Kim Sung-han of Seoul’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, predicting such a move might lead to U.N. Security Council action against the North.

Many here argue that Mr. Kim’s top priority is the survival of his regime and that he would stop short of such a move.

• David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report.

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