N. Korea Claims Nuclear Blast

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea faced united global condemnation and calls for harsh sanctions Monday after it announced it had detonated an atomic weapon in an underground test that thrust the secretive communist state into the elite club of nuclear-armed nations.

The explosion prompted worldwide concern that it could seriously destabilize the region, with even North Korean ally China saying it strongly opposed the move.

Although it has not been confirmed that the blast was a nuclear explosion, the reaction of world governments reflected little doubt that they were treating the North's announcement as fact.

The United Nations Security Council condemned the claim of a nuclear test Monday during an emergency meeting, and the United States and Japan were expected to press for more sanctions on the impoverished North.

U.S. President George W. Bush denounced the test as "unacceptable" and said it posed a threat to global peace and security.

There were conflicting reports on the size of the blast in northeast North Korea. South Korea said it was relatively small, while Russia said it could have been as powerful as the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency said the underground test was performed successfully using the country's "indigenous" technology and that no radiation leaked from the site.

The agency said in an English-language dispatch that the test "marks a historic event as it greatly encouraged and pleased the [Korean People's Army] and people that have wished to have powerful, self-reliant defense capability," adding that it was "a great leap forward in the building of a great, prosperous, powerful socialist nation."

If the test were confirmed, North Korea would be the ninth country known to have nuclear weapons, along with the United States, Russia, France, China, Britain, India, Pakistan and Israel.

"We have no doubt that it was a nuclear explosion," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in televised remarks.

A nuclear North Korea would dramatically alter the strategic balance of power in the Pacific region and seriously undermine global anti-proliferation efforts.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test marked the beginning of a "dangerous nuclear age" in north Asia.

Australia and South Korea said there was a seismic confirmation that pointed to a nuclear test, but Japan and the United States said they could not immediately confirm that.

South Korea's seismic monitoring center said a magnitude 3.6 tremor felt at the time of the nuclear test was not a natural occurrence. The size of the tremor could indicate an explosive equivalent to 550 tons of TNT, Park Chang-soo, spokesman at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources, said. This nuclear threshold is far smaller than that of the bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Ivanov, however, disputed this estimate, saying the force of the blast was equivalent to anywhere from five to 15 kilotons of TNT.

The bomb that struck Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 had a destructive power of about 15 kilotons.

The U.S. Geological Survey said it recorded a seismic event with a preliminary magnitude of 4.2 in northeastern North Korea, coinciding with the test claim, but survey official Bruce Presgrave said the agency was unable to tell if it was an atomic explosion or a natural earthquake.

"I think we have to take them at their word. They're not the type of regime to bluff," said Peter Beck, a Seoul-based analyst for conflict resolution think tank International Crisis Group.

Late on Monday, Tokyo dispatched three T-4 supersonic aircraft to waters between Japan and the Korean peninsula to monitor radiation levels, the Japanese Defense Agency said.

In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush said he had called the leaders of South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, and that all had reaffirmed a commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

"Once again, North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond," Bush said in a live broadcast.

President Vladimir Putin told Cabinet officials that Moscow "certainly condemns the test conducted by North Korea."

"It doesn't just concern North Korea; enormous damage has been done to the process of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world," he said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said any test would be a "completely irresponsible act," and the British Foreign Ministry warned of international repercussions.

Japan's Abe, in Seoul for a summit meeting, said the "the development and possession of nuclear weapons by North Korea will transform the security environment in North Asia in a major way, and we will be entering a new, dangerous nuclear age."

China, the North's closest ally, said Monday that Beijing "resolutely opposes" a North Korean nuclear test and hoped Pyongyang would return to disarmament talks.

Mohammed Elbaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a statement: "The breaking of a de facto global moratorium on nuclear explosive testing that has been in place for nearly a decade, and the addition of a new state with nuclear weapon capacity is a clear setback to international commitments to move towards nuclear disarmament."

Also at the UN Security Council, South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was nominated as the next secretary-general of the United Nations. (See related story, p. 14.) Ban has said he would use the post, which he would assume Jan. 1 if he were approved by the General Assembly, to press for a resolution of the North Korean nuclear standoff.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said a nuclear test would make it difficult for Seoul to maintain its engagement policy with its communist neighbor.

The two Koreas, which fought a 1950-53 war that ended in a cease-fire but no peace treaty, are divided by the world's most heavily armed border.

They have made strides toward reconciliation since their leaders met at their first-and-only summit in 2000, however.

The South is reconsidering plans to ship 4,000 tons of cement to the North for floods it suffered in mid-July, a South Korean Unification Ministry official said on customary condition of anonymity. Seoul cut off regular aid after the North launched seven ballistic missiles in July.

North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its population of 23 million since its state-run farming system collapsed in the 1990s following decades of mismanagement and the loss of Soviet subsidies.

The North has refused for nearly one year to attend international talks aimed at persuading it to abandon its nuclear ambitions. The country pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 after U.S. officials accused it of a secret nuclear program, allegedly violating an earlier nuclear pact between Washington and Pyongyang.

The North is believed to have enough radioactive material for about six bombs. It insists its nuclear program is necessary to deter a U.S. invasion.

The North has active missile programs, but it isn't believed to have an atomic bomb design small and light enough to be mounted on a long-range rocket that could strike targets as far away as the United States

In Pyongyang, North Koreans went about their lives as usual Monday with no signs of heightened alert. Red flags of the North's Korean Workers' Party draped buildings and lampposts to mark Tuesday's 61st anniversary of the party's founding.

The country's state television read the report about the test during its regular newscasts. The item wasn't the top story and there were no images shown of the test.