Tuesday, October 17, 2006

U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed yesterday that the blast detected in North Korea last week was a smaller-than-expected nuclear detonation, based on the presence of radioactive particles collected near the test site.

“Analysis of air samples collected on October 11, 2006, detected radioactive debris which confirms that North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion in the vicinity of Punggye on October 9,” according to the office of the director of national intelligence (DNI).

The statement is the first official outside acknowledgment that North Korea has tested a nuclear device, indicating the reclusive communist state is the eighth acknowledged member of the “nuclear club,” along with the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan.

Today government officials in both South Korea and Japan said there were indications that North Korea may be planning a second nuclear test.

“I have received information on that, but can’t disclose the details,” Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told reporters in Japan.

A South Korean government official told Reuters in Seoul: “The government is aware of signs related to North Korea’s possible second nuclear test.”

U.S. intelligence agencies are closely monitoring several more test sites in North Korea for signs that Pyongyang will conduct a second test.

“U.S. intelligence views a second test as possible,” one official said, though he denied news reports that one was imminent. “At this point, there is no definitive evidence that that is what they are going to do.”

Meanwhile, commercial satellite photographs revealed the exact location of the North Korean nuclear-test facility where the blast occurred. The photographs, available on the Internet mapping service Google Earth, show what appear to be two tunnels dug into a mountainside and a support facility with several buildings a short distance away.

The test facility near Punggye-ri can be seen in a riverbed surrounded by mountains about 25 miles northwest of the town of Kilchu, about 33 miles from the coast and about 60 miles south of North Korea’s border with China.

Additionally, a large nuclear-testing control facility and residences for technicians and visitors are about five miles south of the testing site. Those facilities are also visible on satellite images.

Officials disclosed the radioactive sampling results, gathered by WC-135 “sniffer” aircraft, unofficially on Friday and officially yesterday.

The DNI statement also said the explosion yield was “less than a kiloton.” A kiloton is the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT or about 1/20th the power of the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, a weapon itself considered small by contemporary standards.

A U.S. official said the radioactive sampling “confirms that it was a nuclear test,” contrary to the earliest indications based on the small size of the explosion that the explosion may have been a failed nuclear test. The Washington Times reported those initial judgments last week. Until the detection of radioactive particles, U.S. intelligence agencies could not confirm that a nuclear blast had taken place.

“There is now sufficient evidence to make that definitive judgment,” the official said.

Several questions remain about the test, including why the yield was so small and whether the test was fully successful. Some government and private specialists say that the data is still inconclusive that a nuclear blast occurred and that what was detected was actually caused by conventional high explosives that were unsuccessful in triggering a full nuclear explosion from a plutonium-based device.

North Korean officials told China’s government before the test that they planned to carry out a test that would produce a 4-kiloton blast. But intelligence officials said the nuclear yield was estimated in internal government data to be 0.2 kilotons, indicating that the North Korean test fell far short of what was planned.

Another theory is that the seismic readings — the test measured a magnitude 4.2, or less than 1 percent as powerful as Sunday’s Hawaii earthquake — were muffled by the underground cave where the device was detonated and that the size of the explosion was bigger than what was detected.

Some Bush administration officials have said intelligence analysis and reporting on North Korea’s nuclear program in the past year has been flawed, a claim intelligence officials vigorously disputed. The administration officials identified 10 areas in which intelligence was weak, including analysis that suggested that North Korea did not have nuclear weapons and was bluffing about conducting a test.

“We may never know the full story,” one official said, pointing to similar comments last week by White House press secretary Tony Snow.

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