COPENHAGEN // Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, has called on the Security Council to take "necessary corresponding measures" against North Korea after the pariah state conducted a powerful underground nuclear test yesterday. The secretary general said he was "deeply disturbed" by Pyongyang's latest violation of UN resolutions and urged the 15-member body to take action during a meeting that was set to take place in New York yesterday afternoon.
Mr Ban called on North Korea to return to the negotiating table and accused it of breaking commitments to the international community, warning that the blast will have a "negative impact on regional peace and security". Japan called for the emergency council meeting, although it remained unclear what action the world power body would take to deter North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, from further escalating tensions on the peninsula.
Many in the region were disappointed last month when the council failed to take tough action against the North in response to the apparent launch of a long-range missile - only adding the names of some companies to a sanctions list. Per Stig Møller, Denmark's foreign minister, focused on the role China could play on the security threat. The Asian powerhouse previously proving unwilling to take a tough line against Pyongyang. Before a meeting with Mr Ban in the Danish capital, Mr Møller suggested China "take the lead" for a growing threat in its "back yard", describing the test as the "totally unacceptable and dangerous" work of a "very unpredictable state".
Security Council members must "tell North Korea that this will have repercussions for them. That sanctions will be brought - against the regime but not the people," said the minister, adding that the "technology transfer ban can be enlarged". Russia's defence ministry was reported as saying the blast was about 20 kilotons, about the same size as the atom bomb dropped by the United States on Nagasaki in 1945.
North Korea's first nuclear weapon test, in October 2006, was considered to have been a relatively weak one, about one kiloton, suggesting design problems. Yesterday's test sparked condemnation from the international community, which has lurched from promises of massive aid to tough economic sanctions to try to stop North Korea's efforts to build a nuclear arsenal. "North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community," the US president, Barack Obama, said in a statement. "North Korea's behaviour increases tensions and undermines stability in North-east Asia."
Japan, which like the United States falls within North Korea's weapons range, reacted even more sternly. Its chief cabinet secretary, Takeo Kawamura, described the test as intolerable. "The government will ask the UN Security Council to take measures. We will definitely not tolerate it." As a permanent member of the Security Council, China has the power to veto any resolution against North Korea. But it will probably face pressure from Washington and other regional capitals to support measures punishing the North for its test.
Pressure was already mounting on China to take a firmer stand as host of the now-stalled six-party talks among regional powers that aim to dismantle North Korea's nuclear programme. China reacted quickly yesterday by condemning North Korea's nuclear test and called on Pyongyang not to worsen the situation; but analysts said Beijing is unlikely to back stronger sanctions as part of any new Security Council resolution.
"The Chinese government expresses its resolute opposition," the foreign ministry said in a statement on its website, while calling for the restarting of talks between North Korea and China, Russia, the United States, Japan and South Korea. "The Chinese side vehemently demands North Korea abides by its denuclearisation promises, stop any actions which may worsen the situation and return to the six-party talks process," it added. "The Chinese government calls on all sides to calmly and appropriately deal" with the situation.
Beijing condemned North Korea's first nuclear test blast in 2006 as a "brazen" slap in the face for Chinese leaders, who give the North crucial economic and diplomatic protection. This time, China's leaders will probably be more careful to balance their anger against worries that Pyongyang could make the six-party nuclear disarmament talks unsalvageable, said Xu Guangyu, a nuclear expert at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association.
"China's goal is to ensure that the six-party talks process does not fall apart. Stricter sanctions are not going to achieve that objective," said Mr Xu, a former military officer. "China may have to compromise with the United States in the Security Council, but it won't want to back strong sanctions." Beijing's policymakers are juggling concerns about potential instability in North Korea, its weakening sway there and fears of a regional confrontation over Pyongyang's nuclear arms programme.
China and its neighbours may ultimately have to become used to a North Korea with a small nuclear arsenal, said Cai Jian, an expert on North Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai. "We used to think North Korea's nuclear weapons programme was just a negotiating tool," Mr Cai said. "But I think it's become clearer that North Korea's ultimate objective is possessing nuclear weapons, and nothing short of that."
A former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, warned that the claimed test is a bad omen in the Middle East "given the co-operation" between North Korea and Iran on ballistic missiles. "Given the co-operation between North Korea and Iran, there is reason to fear that North Korea and Iran may be sharing data on nuclear matters as they do on ballistic missiles," he said. "This is a threat not just in north-east Asia, but potentially in the Middle East as well," he said on Fox News.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, whose government says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, said at a news conference yesterday: "We don't have any co-operation [with North Korea] in this field. We oppose the production, the amassing and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." email@example.com * With additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse