SEOUL // North Korea, defiant in the face of international condemnation of its latest nuclear test, today accused the United States of hostile intent and reportedly fired two short-range missiles, one day after staging a nuclear test, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said. In a move certain to add to tension in the region, South Korea said it would join a US-led initiative to intercept ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, something Pyongyang has warned it would consider a declaration of war.
Yesterday's nuclear test, the North's second after one in 2006, drew sharp rebuke from regional powers, and US President Barack Obama called Pyongyang's atomic arms programme a threat to international security. Underlining concerns over how far the North might be prepared to raise the stakes, Mr Obama assured the South Korean president Lee Myung-bak of Washington's unequivocal commitment to his country's defence on the long-divided peninsula where some two million troops face off.
There is little more Washington can do to deter the ostracised state, punished for years by international sanctions and so poor it relies on aid to feed its 23 million people. Analysts say the latest military grandstanding is also aimed at bolstering leader Kim Jong-il's steel grip on power at home so he can better engineer his succession - with many speculating he wants his third son to take over.
The UN Security Council condemned the test and is working on a new resolution, but analysts say North Korea's giant neighbour China is unlikely to support anything tough. For China, the more immediate risk may be serious rupture inside the impoverished state, which could spark a flood of North Korean refugees across its border. Beijing is also believed to want to bring Pyongyang back to talks with regional powers to make it give up ambitions to be a nuclear weapons power in return for massive aid and an end to its years as a pariah state.
But analysts say North Korea, which now spurns those talks, looks set on wanting a place at the table of nuclear-armed states and the leverage that will provide with Washington. Brushing aside the latest international condemnation, Pyongyang said the United States was the aggressive one, its long-held argument to justify having a nuclear arsenal. "The US would be well advised to halt at once its dangerous military moves against the Dprk (North Korea) if it wants to escape the lot of a tiger moth, bearing deep in mind that any attempt to make a pre-emptive attack on the Dprk is little short of inviting a disaster itself."
The North also fired off three short-range missiles from its east coast missiles bases on Monday. The Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed South Korean official as saying it was likely to launch more, this time from its west coast, either on Tuesday of Wednesday. South Korean stocks and the won currency have largely recovered from their initial shock following the nuclear test, but remain nervous about the escalating tension in a region that accounts for about a sixth of the global economy.
A number of analysts said 67-year-old leader Mr Kim, thought to have suffered a stroke last year, hopes his defiant weapons tests will help him secure support from the hardline military for his chosen successor. Mr Kim was named successor by his father and the country's founding president Kim Il-sung, but has carefully avoided putting any of his three sons in the limelight. "North Korea can only be hawkish this time, because time's running out for Kim Jong-il," said Jang Cheol-hyeon, an expert at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul and a former official at the Workers Party of North Korea.
Mr Kim wants to seal a deal with the United States quickly and seek a swift and sharp improvement in the country's economy before he can anoint one of his sons to succeed him, Jang said. While the outside world was condemning Mr Kim, state media had him enjoying a performance by troops including the songs "Our General Is the Best" and "Song of Coastal Artillery Women". The nuclear test has drawn outrage in the South, which is still mourning Saturday's apparent suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun.
It is also bound to raise concerns about proliferation, a major worry of the United States which has in the past accused Pyongyang of trying try to sell its nuclear know-how to states such as Syria. Some analysts say it also has close military ties with Iran. *Reuters