BEIJING // North Korea claimed yesterday that it successfully carried out a nuclear test, following through on a warning of "retaliation" it made last month. That warning was a recalcitrant response to the UN's condemnation of a rocket launch on April 5 that was widely seen as a disguised test of a long-range missile. "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 to bolster its nuclear deterrent for self-defence," North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said.
South Korea put its troops on heightened alert, despite being in mourning over the death of Roh Moo-hyun, the former president who committed suicide on Saturday amid a widening investigation into a corruption scandal. The president, Lee Myung-bak, convened an emergency meeting of his top security advisers, condemning the North Korean nuclear test as "unpardonable provocation", South Korea's Yonhap News Agency said.
The meteorological administration in South Korea said it detected an "artificial earthquake" with a magnitude of 4.5 at 9.54am yesterday. The US Geological Survey registered the magnitude slightly higher at 4.7. The quake's epicentre was 375km north-east of Pyongyang at a depth of just 10km, the geological survey said. The US and South Korean authorities believe North Korea also separately launched three short-range missiles on its east coast yesterday. "The two governments are working together to assess the missile launch as well," the government-owned Yonhap said, citing an unnamed official.
On April 29, North Korea warned it would fire a missile or even carry out another nuclear test unless the UN apologised for condemning the regime's April 5 rocket launch. Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a think tank in Brussels, characterised Pyongyang's latest provocation as "unhelpful". "With the new nuclear test, the prospect of the international politics doesn't look good. It is certainly not conducive to improve the bilateral relationship with Washington.
"The leadership in Pyongyang may have a different idea about that. They may think that they demonstrated their military strength and power. They may also believe it would give them some advantage." Pyongyang has been raising the ante largely to get the attention of the Obama administration, analysts have said. Regarding the prospect of the North Korea-US relationship, Dong Yong-sueng, chief analyst on North Korea at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul, said: "Things will only get worse from here. North Korea is setting up a collision course with Washington."
Mr Dong said Washington will probably not be impressed by North Korea's latest nuclear provocation and will not likely respond with incentives, such as a bilateral meeting. "To the contrary, it will try to come up with a stronger punitive measure in collaboration with other members of the international community, including China." The US president, Barack Obama, expressed grave concern over North Korea's nuclear test, condemning it as "blatant defiance" of the UN Security Council, and called it a "threat to international peace and security".
Mr Obama also warned that such a provocation will not reward North Korea but "only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation". "Such provocations," he said, "will not find international acceptance." Yang Jiechi, the Chinese foreign minister, in a meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Yu Myung-hwan, at the Asem summit in Hanoi called for the international community to deal with the latest example of Pyongyang's brinkmanship in a "calm and cool-headed manner", according to Yonhap.
North Korea gave advance notice to China, the agency also said, citing a diplomatic source in Beijing. That toned-down response from China signals another round of heated and partisan debate at the UN Security Council over the level of punitive measures against Pyongyang. Cui Zhiying, director of the Korean Peninsula Research Centre at Shanghai's Tongji University, sees North Korea's latest nuclear experiment as provocative yet expected. "North Korea has long been keen to upgrade its nuclear weapons technology."
North Korea conducted its first nuclear experiment in Oct 2006. It recorded a magnitude of 3.6. The North said the results of yesterday's test "helped satisfactorily resolve the scientific and technological problems, further enhancing the power of nuclear weapons and steadily developing nuclear technology". Analysts view North Korea's latest nuclear provocation as meaning a postponement of a sitdown with Washington. "Now, it will take more time until they talk again," Mr Cui said.
"It certainly makes it much more difficult for the Obama administration to be supportive of the engagement strategy," Mr Pinkston said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org