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Saturday, May 07, 2005

U.S. Warns North Korea Against Nuclear Test

May 7, 2005

U.S. Warns North Korea Against Nuclear Test

WASHINGTON, May 6 - The White House warned North Korea on Friday that conducting a nuclear test would be "a provocative act," and Japan's foreign minister raised the possibility of requesting United Nations sanctions against the North.

The White House statement came a day after The New York Times reported growing concern among administration officials and several intelligence agencies about signs that North Korea might conduct its first nuclear test at a site near Kilju in the northeast.

Several officials confirmed those reports on Friday, and two officials with access to the information said satellites were also watching the construction of some platforms and crates hundreds of miles from the possible test site, near a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

The construction there may suggest that preparations are being made to remove spent nuclear fuel rods from the reactor, which was turned off more than a month ago. "It's still something of a mystery," said one of the officials with access to the report. "It's not clear if this construction is related to the rods or not."

If the rods are reprocessed, they could yield enough plutonium for a couple of new nuclear weapons, officials said. But officials have not ruled out the possibility that the reactor was shut for maintenance or as part of a ruse by the North to heighten concern that it is proceeding full steam with its nuclear program.

A few intelligence officials urged caution in interpreting the satellite evidence. While they acknowledge finding signs of continued activity near tunnels in the Kilju area, there is clearly some disagreement among intelligence agencies about whether the latest evidence indicates a drive toward a test.

"What worries us most is that there is a progression of openness among the North Koreans about their nuclear capabilities," said one senior administration official who has been studying the evidence. "They have unfolded new phases of specificity about what they can do, and they seem to have been on a long-term path of ending the ambiguity about their capability."

Whatever the North's motivations, several governments issued carefully worded warnings on Friday. Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura of Japan noted that negotiations had gone nowhere for the past 11 months, and he added, "If there is no progress we have to think of other options, such as taking this matter to the United Nations Security Council." He stopped short of saying what types of sanctions might be sought.

In New York, where a United Nations meeting on the spread of nuclear weapons is under way, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said the world must exert pressure on the North not to conduct a test, saying it would have "disastrous political and environmental consequences."

President Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters on Air Force One on the way to Latvia: "I don't want to get into discussing intelligence matters. But what I would say is that if North Korea did take such a step, that would just be another provocative act that would further isolate it from the international community."

Military and Pentagon officials said Friday that there was no unusual or accelerated planning under way for any military action to halt either a nuclear test or the removal of more nuclear fuel from a North Korean reactor. North Korea's ability to strike Seoul, the South Korean capital, with conventional mortar rounds from its emplacements north of the demilitarized zone between the two countries and to threaten Japan with missiles has long given the North protection from any American-led strike. These officials emphasized that a diplomatic solution to North Korean nuclear ambitions remained the No. 1 choice across the Bush administration.

At the State Department and the White House, officials said they were considering a range of options for taking the issue to the United Nations Security Council. One idea is to establish a quarantine operation - though the administration says it will not use that word - that would search shipments in and out of the country for weapons. But it is unclear whether China or Russia would be willing to allow such a resolution to pass in the Council.

Officials acknowledged that even if economic sanctions were approved, there would be no way to enforce them along the Chinese border, where most of North Korea's trade takes place.

Thom Shanker contributed reporting for this article.

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