TOKYO – North Korea declared Tuesday that it would conduct a nuclear test to bolster its defenses against the United States, raising tensions in the region and marking the communist government’s first unambiguous pledge to prove it has become a nuclear power.
Though North Korea has previously said it possesses nuclear bombs – U.S. intelligence officials have estimated it could have as many as 11 – a test detonation would dramatically change the region’s power dynamics. Analysts have said the United States and area neighbors including China, Japan and South Korea would be forced to deal far more harshly with the North Koreans.
A test would be a “very provocative act,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a visit to Cairo, Egypt. It would create a “qualitatively different situation on the Korean Peninsula” that would spill over into the entire region, she said. Rice declined to predict what the U.S. response might be.
In a statement issued through the official KCNA news service, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the government will “conduct a nuclear test under conditions where safety is firmly guaranteed.” The statement did not say when the test might occur but added that the North’s “nuclear weapons will serve as reliable war deterrent for protecting the supreme interests of the state and the security of the Korean nation from the U.S. threat of aggression.”
The declaration follows news reports in recent months, based on intelligence agency findings, that the secretive communist state might be preparing a test site in its barren northeast. Observers greeted the reports with some skepticism, partly because North Korea is widely known for brinkmanship.
High-level officials from the United States, Japan, South Korea and China immediately began exchanging calls Tuesday to discuss a response, according to Asian diplomatic sources. These countries have been part of six-party talks attempting to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program. Large numbers of intelligence analysts and policymakers who usually split their time among a host of issues, including Iran, were devoted Tuesday exclusively to the North Korean statement.
The reaction was particularly sharp in Japan, which sees itself as a primary target of North Korean aggression. “If they conduct a nuclear test, it will not be forgiven,” Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said Tuesday night. “The international community will deal with the situation firmly.”
Before his election last week, Abe suggested that Tokyo should study whether Japan’s constitution would allow a pre-emptive strike on North Korean missile bases.
Several analysts and diplomats said that a test would in effect mean that North Korea’s absolute ruler, Kim Jong Il, had played his last card in the standoff over the country’s nuclear program. Observers suggested that the threat might be an attempt to force an easing of the economic pressure against the North that has risen dramatically in recent months.