Saturday, October 14, 2006

U.S. intelligence agencies have detected radioactive particles in air samples collected near North Korea’s nuclear testing facility, leading analysts to conclude that the blast detected Monday was a nuclear explosion, Bush administration officials said last night.

Meanwhile, at U.N. headquarters in New York, the United States, China and Russia agreed yesterday on sanctions against North Korea for its claimed nuclear test, with Washington backing away from its tough demands of inspections at sea to assuage fears by Beijing and Moscow of a U.S. naval buildup in East Asia.

Diplomats said they expected a vote by the 15-nation U.N. Security Council as early as today.

Washington agreed to accept language ruling out a military response to win backing from China and Russia, which have vetoes in the council.

But differences remained over how far the United Nations could go in authorizing searches of North Korean ships.

John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador at the United Nations who had pressed for a “swift and strong” response to Monday’s reported nuclear test, said he was pleased with the latest draft.

“I hope that we will have a vote — expect to have a vote by the 14th of October, five days [after the test],” Mr. Bolton said. “So that is, I think, a sign of the determination of the council in the face of this threat to move quickly.”

The detected radioactive particles were picked up by sensors aboard aircraft flying off the coast of North Korea around the time the Oct. 9 blast was detected by seismic sensors northwest of the town of Kilchu.

Processing of the data collected by the WC-135 aircraft, called “sniffers” because of the chemical sensors that can detect particles of radioactive material, has been under way for the past five days.

Analysis of data by a laboratory in Florida is the first indication that nuclear particles were found after the test.

The finding of such particles is significant because it supports other evidence by U.S. intelligence agencies of a test and will likely lead to a more definitive conclusion that the explosion produced a nuclear yield.

One senior intelligence official said the sensor data indicating nuclear particles supports the main theory of intelligence analysts that the underground test was a plutonium device that did not fully detonate.

The blast detected by sensors created a shock wave equivalent to a magnitude 4.2 earthquake and nuclear specialists estimated that the blast was 0.2 kilotons, or the equivalent of 200 tons of TNT.

That size is far smaller than the 4 kilotons that North Korean officials told China prior to the test would be the size of the demonstration shot.

A defense official said it is almost impossible for an underground nuclear test not to produce some venting of radioactive particles because the particles escape through the ground or through the opening of the tunnel.

The U.N. draft document to impose sanctions on North Korea expresses “profound concern that the test claimed by [North Korea] had generated increased tension in the region and beyond, and [determined] therefore that there is a clear threat to international peace and security.”

There were conflicting reports yesterday whether radiation had been detected at the test site. But the relatively small size of the explosion indicated that the blast had failed to set off a nuclear chain reaction.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepared to head to China, Japan and South Korea early next week to discuss steps to implement the U.N. resolution.

The latest draft:

• Prohibits the transfer of material or technology to Pyongyang that can be used in nuclear, ballistic missile or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs.

• Prohibits sales or transfers of heavy conventional weapons such as tanks, warships and combat aircraft to North Korea.

• States that the resolution does not authorize the use of military force against North Korea.

• Allows travel bans on people involved in North Korean weapons programs and their families.

• Demands Pyongyang immediately return without condition to the six-nation talks about energy and security concerns, and rejoin international nonproliferation agreements.

• Bans sales of luxury goods, such as cognac and gourmet food, to the North.

“The North Korean population’s been losing average height and weight over the years, and maybe this will be a little diet for Kim Jong-il,” Mr. Bolton said.

He was referring to the North Korean leader, who is said to import vast quantities of lobster, caviar, fine wines and expensive cuts of sushi for himself, his family and close associates.

The sanctions were carefully tailored not to impose additional hardship on North Korea’s impoverished population, most of whom are dependent on rations from international donors.

The document also emphasizes regional cooperation, in part to satisfy Chinese fears of a greater U.S. military presence in the region.

North Korea is likely to take a higher profile at the United Nations, now that it claims to have conducted a nuclear test and is threatening additional testing.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, unanimously selected yesterday by the U.N. General Assembly to be the next secretary-general of the world body, has pledged to work for peace and stability in Asia.

Mr. Ban told reporters yesterday evening that he would stress improved communications between nations and North Korea.

“Diplomacy is very important,” he said. “Even during military conflicts there needs to be room for dialogue. I have always been saying that we need to take a two-pronged approach. Sometimes we take a stern and strong position, but there is room for dialogue, it is absolutely necessary.”

One of the resolution’s most ambitious planks is to create an international inspection regime that could, in theory, allow authorities to board ships, planes and trucks going into or out of North Korea.

North Korean neighbors Russia and China sought last-minute changes in the inspection regime, fearing that it would increase the presence of U.S. warships in the region.

The five veto-wielding council members — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia — met late yesterday with Japan, which holds the council presidency this month.

Wang Guangya, China’s U.N. ambassador, said negotiations would continue today.

The inspection proposal is modeled on the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

The United States and 65 other nations have voluntarily agreed to inspections under the PSI, in which members agree to share intelligence and resources to contain weapons of mass destruction. North Korea is not a member.

The U.S. and Bahrain yesterday announced they would practice interdicting nuclear material and equipment at sea on Oct. 31, in the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Iran.

Kuwait, France and Britain are also expected to participate.

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