Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The United States and two allies voiced new worries yesterday that North Korea is set to conduct a second underground nuclear test, as Pyongyang said that new U.N. sanctions are tantamount to a declaration of war.

Asked about the possibility of another nuclear test, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters that there is “speculation,” but no specific information.

“We’ve seen them do things in multiples rather than singles,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, referring to North Korea’s seven missile-flight tests in July.

“There’s speculation that they may want to do something additional. There’s also speculation they may not. So, only time will tell,” he said after meeting with Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

In Tokyo, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said, “We have received such information [about a test], but I cannot tell you the details.”

A South Korean official told reporters in Seoul that “there are certain signs that prompted our authorities to cast a very sensitive eye on the matter.”

U.S. intelligence agencies on Monday confirmed that a blast Oct. 9 northwest of Kilchu, North Korea, was a nuclear test, although it appeared to be smaller and less successful than anticipated.

The White House warned North Korea yesterday that another nuclear test would lead to greater isolation.

“The first test, while nuclear, did have a low yield, and perhaps it would not be unreasonable to expect that the North Koreans might want to try something once again to be provocative,” White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters. “It would not be a good thing for them, but it certainly would not be out of character.”

A U.S. official said yesterday that a second test is possible but that there are no signs one is imminent.

A defense official said that several North Korean nuclear-testing facilities are being watched closely and that some increased activity has been spotted. Normally, such tests are preceded by vehicle movement and increased communications.

North Korea’s government, meanwhile, harshly criticized sanctions passed Saturday by the United Nations in response to the nuclear test, issuing its first official statement on the matter.

The Foreign Ministry said North Korea’s test was the result of “the U.S. nuclear threat, sanctions and pressure.”

North Korea “was compelled to substantially prove its possession of nukes to protect its sovereignty and right to existence from the daily increasing danger of war from the U.S.,” the ministry said.

Pyongyang, however, still wants to “de-nuclearize the peninsula through dialogue and negotiations,” it stated.

North Korea “is ready for both dialogue and confrontation,” the Foreign Ministry said. “If the U.S. increases pressure upon [North Korea], persistently doing harm to it, it will continue to take physical countermeasures, considering it as a declaration of a war.”

In Seoul, Christopher R. Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters that another nuclear test will be a further sign of North Korean bellicosity.

“We would all regard a second test as a belligerent answer on North Korea’s part to the international community,” he said. North Korea “really has to understand that the international community is not going to accept [it] as a nuclear state.”

Mr. Hill said Pyongyang might view nuclear tests as a way to gain respectability but, in fact, the blasts “make us respect them less.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left Washington yesterday for a diplomatic tour of the region. She will meet with Japanese officials today and South Korean ministers tomorrow on North Korea sanctions. She will also meet with Chinese officials later in the week.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency today quoted Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador in Seoul, as saying Miss Rice will ask South Korea to help inspect North Korea-bound ships for the components for weapons of mass destruction. Both China and South Korea have expressed reluctance to participate in such actions.

The governments of South Korea and Japan also are worried that a second test is coming.

Intelligence analysis of the likelihood of a second test appeared mixed. Some analysts said there is no evidence indicating that a second test will be conducted soon.

However, a defense intelligence official told Reuters that North Korea has moved equipment and structures that are signs of a coming test.

“This activity could represent prep for a second test, but it doesn’t necessarily mean definitively that it is,” the defense official said.

People and vehicle activity in North Korea is not a sure sign of an impending nuclear test.

“They may have had the same activity six months ago, but it wouldn’t have raised any red flags at the time,” one official said. “But now it is.”

On the motive behind North Korean actions, Mr. Snow said he would not “do a psychological evaluation of the ‘Dear Leader,’” as North Korea’s Kim Jong-il is called.

“What we do is, we take a look at his actions, and we’ll respond with actions, which we think are going to be louder than words or psychological profiles,” he said.

“I think the consequences of a second North Korean nuclear test would be the further isolation of North Korea,” Mr. Snow said.

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