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North Koreans in military uniforms perform near a display of heroic soldier images formed by thousands of children holding up cards during the annual massive propaganda spectacle known as the "mass games" held in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Tuesday, October 11, 2005.
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Oct. 11, 2006
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North Korea's Power Checked
// How Powerful was the Country's First Nuclear Test?
Yesterday the United States and Japan pointedly refused to confirm a dispatch from Pyongyang announcing the successful execution of the country's first nuclear test. Washington and Tokyo still maintain that North Korea may have faked the test in order to scare the western world. Nevertheless, it is the US and Japan who are pushing hardest for the introduction of harsh international sanctions against North Korea. ITAR-TASS news agency's correspondent in Tokyo, Vasily Golovin, exclusively provided Kommersant with the details.
South Korean Unification Minister Lee Chong-sok told deputies in the national parliament yesterday that Pyongyang on Monday actually did explode a nuclear device. However, in his opinion, Seoul will require another two weeks to determine whether the test was successful.

The opinions expressed in Tokyo and Washington were even less conclusive Ц officials there refused to officially confirm even the fact that a suspicious earthquake in Hamgyong Province in the extreme northeast of North Korea was caused by an atomic blast. Japan's meteorological service does admit that, judging by the character of the seismic waves that it generated, the underground tremor does appear to have an artificial origin. Japanese experts, however, say that the weakness of the blast makes determining its character difficult.

Christopher Hill, an assistant to the US secretary of state who specializes in East Asian and Pacific Ocean affairs and who is responsible for relations with Pyongyang, told CNN the same thing. According to Mr. Hill, Washington still needs "a few more days" to determine whether a nuclear test actually took place in North Korea. Along with the seismic analyses currently being carried out, American, South Korean, and Japanese reconnaissance planes have been deployed to the airspace over North Korea with orders to gather telltale dust particles that are released into the atmosphere after any underground nuclear test, even one that was carried out under ideal conditions. According to sources in Tokyo, four versions of events are currently being considered: a non-nuclear explosion, an explosion of a component of a nuclear device, an unsuccessful nuclear test, or a nuclear test of very small dimensions.

Japanese and American experts initially refused to discount the possibility that Pyongyang had managed to pack an underground mine in the mountainous testing grounds with enough dynamite to fake a show of its "nuclear power." However, this variant has been discounted, since the character of the artificial earthquake does not confirm it. Verification of the other possibilities is proceeding slowly, drawn out by inconsistencies in even the evaluation of the scale of the explosion. The French Defense Ministry, which has its own atmospheric monitors in place, believes that the event was on the scale of a minimum of the equivalent of 500 tons of TNT. Seoul initially leaned towards similar estimates, announcing that the blast was no larger than 800 tons of TNT and was more likely to be on the order of 400-500 tons, but South Korea later corrected its estimate to "more than 800 tons of TNT."

At the Australian Center for Seismic Research, estimates are ranging as high as 1000 tons. The electronic version of the New York Times reported on Tuesday that American experts are leaning towards a similar estimate. For comparison, the power of the uranium bomb dropped by America on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 was the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT. The plutonium bomb dropped three days later on Nagasaki was the equivalent of approximately 21,000 tons of TNT.

Obviously, then, the explosion in North Korea was fairly modest by comparison. Sources in Tokyo are issuing preliminary warnings that Pyongyang may have tried to explode a "Hiroshima-class" device, but that the North Koreans did not achieve full detonation. The opinion is also circulating that only the so-called trigger component of an atom bomb was exploded in Hamgyong Province that day. In some bomb designs, such a trigger Ц with the power of approximately a kiloton of TNT Ц is needed to provide the initial hard nuclear irradiation that then detonates the main component of the bomb.

Most of all, the American and Japanese experts fear the variant in which a test of a small device was successfully carried out, since such a device could be made into a compact warhead for a ballistic missile. Until now, specialists have basically ruled out the possibility that Pyongyang has advanced to the stage of creating nuclear weapons that could actually be used, although Tokyo does not consider the likelihood of such an evolution of events to be negligible. In any case, however, the estimates made by Western and South Korean experts of the scale of the blast in North Korea differ sharply from the data made public on Monday by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov. At a meeting with President Putin, Mr. Ivanov stated that "the power of the tests carried out was 5 to 15 kilotons." China came forward with a similar estimate: no numbers were given officially, but the country is reported to have told the government of South Korea that the scale of the explosion in North Korea was on the order of 10 kilotons. Sources in Tokyo say that these estimates may be taken from advance communiqu?s concerning the imminent test that were sent by Pyongyang to Moscow and Beijing.

Whatever the case may be, doubts about the North Korean blast did not stop the United States and Japan from taking a harsh position on punishing Pyongyang when the question was brought up during the recently opened discussion concerning North Korea in a meeting of the United Nations in New York. On Monday, Washington proposed that all international deliveries to and from North Korea be inspected and that deliveries to North Korea of any kind of weapon and all assets having any relation to the North Korean program of developing missiles and weapons of mass destruction be frozen. Washington also proposed to the UN member states a boycott of North Korean goods and a ban on international travel by senior North Korean officials.

Japan tacked on even more severe additions to the American proposal. In particular, Tokyo is calling on the international community to place a ban on allowing North Korean airplanes and ocean-going vessels to use airports and seaports around the world if the vessels are found to be carrying components for nuclear weapons or ballistic rockets.

Vasily Golovin

All the Article in Russian as of Oct. 11, 2006

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