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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 249 (February 14, 2013)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

North Korea Conducts Its Third Nuclear Test, Sparking International Outrage

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Despite repeated international warnings, North Korea carried out a long-threatened nuclear test on Feb. 12, exactly two months after its long-range rocket launch that sparked international condemnation and tightened sanctions.

   North Korea's third nuclear test is believed to have been more powerful than the previous two, drawing even stronger international condemnation than before sending the already high tensions on the Korean Peninsula soaring.

   The blast "was conducted in a safe and perfect way on a high level with the use of a smaller and light A-bomb unlike the previous ones, yet with great explosive power," Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced. It was the North's third atomic test after two previous ones in 2006 and 2009.

   The latest test drew particular international attention because of the North's claim that it detonated a "smaller" device. If the North succeeded in miniaturizing a bomb, it could mount the device on a long-range rocket capable of traveling as far as the United States.

   The official news agency released a report saying, "Our national space science sector has successfully carried out a third underground nuclear test at the northern underground nuclear test site on Feb. 12.

   "This nuclear test was carried out as an actual countermeasure to safeguard our national security and sovereignty, in reaction to the United State's atrocious hostile acts that infringed our right to develop our legitimate peaceful satellite launches for the republic," the report said.

   Hours after an unusual seismic tremor was detected at the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test complex, the KCNA said the detonation was of a "high level" using a smaller device compared to its previous two nuclear tests, and that the test was carried out in a safe manner that did not affect the surrounding environment.

   "The specific features of the function and explosive power of the A-bomb and all other measurements fully tallied with the values of the design, physically demonstrating the good performance of the DPRK (North Korea)'s nuclear deterrence that has become diversified."

   The North's official Korean Central TV said the test results "matched our design numbers and estimates, which physically exemplifies the excellent capability of our nuclear deterrence capabilities."

   Confirming a third nuclear test, South Korea's government issued a statement, saying the test violated past U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and posed an "unacceptable threat" to peace and stability in the region.

   The nuclear test "is an unacceptable threat to peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, and is a head-on challenge to the international community," said South Korea in the statement. The UNSC is called into an emergency session to discuss the latest North Korean provocation.

   U.S. President Barack Obama also said that North Korea's announcement of another nuclear test is a "highly provocative act" and pledged all necessary actions to defend his country and its allies.

   China's Foreign Ministry said that it was firmly opposed to the test, stressing the North conducted it "in disregard of the common opposition of the international community."

   Seoul's Korea Meteorological Administration detected a magnitude 4.9 tremor at 11:57:50 a.m. with its epicenter located in Kilju County. The area, located in North Hamgyong Province in the northeast of the socialist country, is home to the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test complex that was used in the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests. Other seismic detection agencies in other countries also picked up the artificial quake.

   The earthquake-monitoring agency analyzed its seismic wave and confirmed it was an "artificial earthquake." The magnitude of the seismic activity during the test in 2006 was 3.6 and in 2009 it was 4.5.

   The North said the atomic weapon test is in response to the encroachment of its sovereignty following the launch of the Unha-3 rocket on Dec. 12. It said the test will bolster the country's defense against security threats from abroad. The report added that the latest test will ensure peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula as well as in the region.

   Despite claims that the nuclear test was a success, South Korea's defense ministry said the latest detonation resulted in a 6-7 kiloton atomic explosion that fell shy of a yield required for a "boosted fission weapon" that some experts speculated the North wanted to test this time around. A kiloton is equal to 1,000 tons of conventional TNT explosive.

   The ministry said that while the detonation resulted in a blast larger than the 1 kiloton device that Pyongyang used for its first test and the 2-6 kiloton weapon used in the second experiment, it was not as powerful as the 13 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the United States at the end of World War II.

   An official said that judging by the overall yield as checked by seismic readings, the explosion was not "normal." Most nuclear experts said the 2006 test was a so-called incomplete detonation, with some even saying the 2009 test may have not resulted in the kind of explosion that Pyongyang wanted.

   In addition, Seoul said it is keeping an eye out for further nuclear testing and for the launch of another long-range rocket. South Korea has placed its military and police on high alert and said it is working closely with the United States military to bolster the country's intelligence gathering capability to deal with any threat.

   South Korean officials said the North gave the United States, China and Russia advance notice on Feb. 11 that it was going to conduct a nuclear test, and the information was passed on to South Korea.

   This week's blast came ahead of the Feb. 16 birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and one day before Obama delivered his first State of the Union address of his second term.

   South Korean officials had previously warned that the North could detonate a nuclear device built with highly enriched uranium, unlike the two previous tests where plutonium was used, or could even test a "boosted fission weapon," which is smaller than conventional nuclear weapons but has a greater yield.

   Success in developing boosted fission weapons would mean Pyongyang is on the threshold of being able to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a missile, a technology that has long been considered one of the key hurdles to the deployment of nuclear-tipped rockets.

   It was not immediately known what kind of bomb was used, though the North claims that a "smaller and light A-bomb" was detonated. It was unclear if this means the North has mastered the miniaturization technology.

   In its resolution last month, the U.N. Security Council warned it will take "significant action" if North Korea conducts a nuclear test or launches rockets, and urged Pyongyang to abandon all nuclear weapons and programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.

   Seoul's Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone and agreed to take "swift and unified" action at the UNSC over the North's nuclear test.

   Earlier in the day, President Lee Myung-bak held an emergency meeting of the National Security Council. A government statement issued after the meeting strongly denounced the test and warned that the North "won't be able to escape from (taking) grave responsibility for all consequences resulting from this provocation."

   Also in Seoul, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Jung Seung-jo held an emergency meeting with Gen. James Thurman, chief of the U.S. Forces Korea, and American ambassador Sung Kim to share intelligence and prepare measures to handle heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula.

   For nearly a decade, South Korea and four other regional powers have sought to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs in exchange for economic aid and other concessions. But the on-again-off-again six-party talks, which also involve China, Japan, Russia and the United States, produced no lasting results. The talks have been suspended since the last session in late 2008.

   Seoul's National Intelligence Service raised the possibility of Pyongyang carrying out additional nuclear tests.

   The Korea-U.S. joint forces also raised its alert to the second-highest level of Watchcon 2 from Watchcon 3 to guard against any military attacks from North Korea.

   Experts said North Korea's third nuclear test is expected to reinforce the power base of Kim Jong-un one year after the young leader took over the socialist dynasty.

   The fledgling leadership appears to be seeking to augment power by carrying on the regime's nuclear ambitions through missile and nuclear tests.

   The communist country's display of such power initially aims to force the U.S. to the negotiation table where the North expects for Washington and the international community to cave to its demands, according to experts.

   "North Korea may eye the previous cycle that its provocation was soon followed by the resumption of bilateral talks with the U.S.," said Kim Kap-sik, a researcher at the National Assembly Research Service.

   For the ruling clique, foreign relations may well be compromised in order to accomplish domestic objectives and boost its legitimacy, experts say.

   Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute, said Kim will present the success of the rocket launch and atomic test as symbols of a "military powerhouse." "He has apparently proven to be a confident commander-in-chief and loyal successor to his father. Now he has reason to push economic growth," he said.

   The nuclear test also wreaked havoc on global hopes for Kim's perceived efforts to ease poverty and shore up the people's livelihoods. His major policy road map unveiled in August envisages a "prosperous country."

   Since taking power, Kim has been challenging the military's iron grip, exposing the reclusive family to the public and retuning the state's economic strategy. He has also placed economic specialists in powerful positions, while sacking or demoting hardliners who championed his father's military-first policy.

   "By drawing the attention from the U.S. as well as South Korea and other key players by using the brinkmanship tactics, North Korea will aim to take the upper hand over the international community and repeat its demand of earning the status as a nuclear power," Kim Yong-hyun, professor of Seoul's Dongguk University said.

   Seeking international recognition as a nuclear power, North Korea has called for "nuclear arms control" negotiations with the U.S., not denuclearization talks.

   Pyongyang's detonation can also be seen as Pyongyang's move aimed at addressing its domestic politics. "North Korea has vowed to achieve the so-called prosperous and powerful nation with strong military and economic clout by 2013. So the leadership would be in need to do something to appeal to its own people," said Cho Dong-jun, professor at the Seoul National University.

   Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Feb. 12 that North Korea's provocative act will only deepen the communist nation's isolation. Delivering the first State of the Union address, Obama said his administration will strengthen missile defense against North Korean threats.

   "America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons," he said in a speech at Capitol Hill. "The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations."

   He added, "Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

   Also, a bill banning food aid to North Korea is already awaiting action in the U.S. House of Representatives.

   China's Foreign Ministry said that it was "firmly opposed" to the test, stressing the North conducted the test "in disregard of the common opposition of the international community."

   "Bringing about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, preventing nuclear proliferation, and safeguarding peace and stability in Northeast Asia is the firm stance of the Chinese. We strongly urge the DPRK to honor its commitment to denuclearization and refrain from any move that may further worsen the situation," it said in a statement on its website.

   China, however, also called on relevant parties to respond calmly to the situation. "The Chinese government calls on all parties to respond calmly and solve the problem of denuclearization of the peninsula through dialogue and consultation in the framework of the six-party talks," the foreign ministry said.

   Observers say the UNSC could adopt additional sanctions such as freezing the North Korean leadership's overseas financial assets and sanctioning vessels that travel to the reclusive state.

   But it would be unlikely the UNSC would quote Article 42 of the U.N. Charter's Chapter 7, which offers grounds for military action, in a fresh sanction against the North as China, the sole major ally of the reclusive state, is likely to oppose it, they noted.

   "We had some optimism that the international community could negotiate a way to dissuade the North from the test. But North Korea appears to have made a decision to develop nuclear arms to maintain its regime," said Yoo Ho-yeol, North Korea expert at Korea University. "The test also showed that China has only limited influence over the North. But Beijing might not seek a measure that could deal a direct blow to the North."

  (END)
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