SEOUL — The United States and other nations Monday strongly condemned North Korea’s nuclear test but gave little indication of what they might do to restrain an isolated nation that appears determined to modernize its nuclear arsenal and may be in throes of a difficult political succession.
“By acting in blatant defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community,” President Obama said in a statement. “North Korea’s behavior increases tensions and undermines stability in Northeast Asia. Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea’s isolation.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said North Korea’s test — the second in three years — was evidence of “growing belligerence on the part of North Korea.”
Adm. Mullen, appearing on CBS’s “The Early Show,” said if Pyongyang continues to develop a nuclear weapons program it “poses a grave threat to the United States.”
The Korean Central New Agency, or KCNA, the North’s official mouthpiece, said Monday it had conducted an underground test to “bolster its nuclear deterrent for self defense.” It added that the explosion was more powerful than that registered in the previous October 2006 test.
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The announcement followed reports that U.S. and South Korean geological survey agencies had detected an earth tremor that registered 4.7 on the Richter scale in Northeast Korea. North Korea followed its nuclear test with the launch of a short-range missile off its East Coast at around midday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
Japan, which is in missile range of North Korea, called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council later Monday to discuss how to deal with the test. North Korea responded furiously to a lukewarm condemnation of an April 5 ballistic missile test and there was little indication that the world body would be able to do more this time.
China, which holds veto power on the Security Council, joined the chorus of disapproval Monday, saying it “resolutely opposed” the test.
However, Jim Walsh, a Korea specialist at MIT, said China “doesn’t want to squeeze the egg when it may be already cracked and there may be a transition afoot” in North Korea from the leadership of Kim Jong Il, who suffered a stroke last year, and members of his family backed by North Korea’s powerful military.
“The military members of the [North Korean] national defense committee are exerting themselves,” he said.
Mr. Walsh said it would be key for the United States to reassure Japan that it remains under U.S. nuclear protection so that the Japanese would not be tempted to test a nuclear weapon as well.
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso called the North Korea test an “unacceptable” violation of previous U.N. resolutions.
South Korea, which is typically blase about Northern bluster, remained calm — the stock market slipped only 0.2 percent. But analysts were alarmed by the developments, extreme even by Pyongyang’s standards of brinksmanship.
“It is not just the dimension of what they have done, but the tempo they are piling on these escalations that is going to worry even the Chinese and Russians,” said Brian Myers, a North Korea expert at Dongseo University. “Will they adopt the same easygoing stance they adopted after April 5? I don’t think they can.”
“This appears to be more than the usual North Korean antics and suggests all may not be well in Pyongyang,” added Mike Breen, author of a biography of Kim Jong-il. “There is a risk here that someone may miscalculate.”
With Mr. Kim in uncertain health, some detect a new hard line in regime policy making. Earlier this month, South Korean media reported that Pyongyang’s point man on South Korean affairs, who had overseen cross-border engagement, had been executed.
North Korea, facing a high-tech South Korean-U.S. force across its border, and with its conventional military virtually decrepit, appears determined to upgrade its strategic assets, notably its nuclear capability and delivery vehicles. A second nuclear test had long been predicted: Pyongyang’s 2006 test is believed to have produced a lower explosive yield than anticipated by Northern scientists.
In recent months, the North has been busily accelerating tensions in the region, with harsh rhetoric, the detention of U.S. and South Korean citizens and a ballistic missile test. The timing of the detonation could be directed at either or both the United States and South Korea.
In South Korea, it coincided with the aftermath of the suicide of ex-President Roh Moo-hyun, on Saturday. Mr. Roh had been the most pro-North Korean of Southern presidents; Mr. Kim conveyed a message of “profound condolence” to Mr. Roh’s family on Monday via the KCNA — the first time a North Korean leader has sent such a message regarding a South Korean leader.
Pyongyang has been highly critical of the conservative government of Lee Myung-bak, Mr. Roh’s rival and successor, and there are worries that Mr. Roh’s death could ignite anti-government demonstrations. Central Seoul Monday was jammed with scores of riot police buses, deployed to pre-empt unrest.
However, most experts believe the test was symbolically aimed at an American audience which was celebrating Memorial Day on Monday. In 2006, Pyongyang launched a salvo of missiles on July 4.
“Maybe [North Korea] decided to put all their aces on the table,” said Andrei Lankov of Kukmin University. “They want concessions from the U.S. and recognition as a nuclear power, but the Americans need to show a bit of character, and not give concessions immediately.”
David Albright, a nuclear expert and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank, faulted the Obama administration for not devoting more attention to North Korea earlier and warned that a harsh response now might boomerang.
Mr. Albright said the North Korean military had taken advantage of the lack of high-level U.S. engagement to push forward with the program.
“How do I make my nuclear arsenal more robust, capable and credible?” he said the North Korea military had asked itself. “The military was waiting to do this for a long time and saw an opportunity.”
However, some believe that Pyongyang’s provocations are designed for an internal, not external audience. North Korea’s regime, presiding over a crippled economy and with its population suffering from Asia’s lowest quality of life, may feel impelled to create tension to justify its existence as the defender of its population against external threats.
“The regime’s legitimacy depends upon its military strength,” Mr. Myers said. “It is on a collision course with the rest of the world.”
The Obama administration’s part-time envoy for North Korea, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, said after last month’s missile test, that he wanted to reopen negotiations, but North Korea continued to play hard to get.
“There is nothing to be gained by sitting down together with a party that continues to view us with hostility,” Monday’s KCNA report said.
Washington Times staffers Barbara Slavin and Christina Bellantoni contributed to this article from Washington, D.C.