U.S. plays down blast in N. Korea

Officials doubt explosion was a nuclear arms test

September 13, 2004|By Josh Meyer | Josh Meyer,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Top Bush administration officials said yesterday that a huge explosion last week in North Korea did not appear to have been a nuclear test, but they warned the communist regime that detonating such a weapon would be a serious political mistake.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, appeared on Sunday morning news shows and downplayed the significance of the explosion or explosions reported over the weekend, but acknowledged that they did not know what had caused it.

"We've seen reports of this explosion, but based on all the information that we have, it was not any kind of nuclear event," Powell said on Fox News Sunday. "We're trying to find out more about it and what exactly it was, if anything."

The first explanation from North Korea came early today, when the British Broadcasting Corp. reported that its foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun, said the blast was the deliberate demolition of a mountain as part of a hydroelectric project.

His remarks came in response to a call for information by Bill Rammell, a British Foreign Office minister who is in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

South Korean officials, who like U.S. officials have said they don't believe the incident was a nuclear test, said yesterday that there actually had been two blasts, one at 11 p.m. Wednesday. The other was at 1 a.m. Thursday, the 56th anniversary of North Korea's founding - an occasion when the nation might show off any new technology.

The blasts were detected near China's border by South Korean seismic sensors, which measured a tremor of 2.6. But radiation monitors showed no signs of nuclear fallout.

"It would be absurd for the North to conduct a nuclear test near the Chinese border," Chung Dong Young, head of South Korea's national security council, said yesterday.

The blasts occurred about six miles from the North's Yongjori missile base, in a mountainous area off-limits to outsiders.

The base has tunnels for storing, deploying and launching up to 20 medium-range Rodong missiles, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

Several nuclear nonproliferation experts said in interviews yesterday that the blasts were probably caused by an accident at the base, or by an accident at a mine or fuel depot.

"If this was a nuclear blast, we would have known about it," said Joseph Cirincione, who heads the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The United States, he said, uses cutting-edge technology to detect even the most minute presence of radiation in the atmosphere above North Korea, as well as seismic and visual analysis and satellite imagery that would corroborate any kind of nuclear test.

North Korean officials revealed in October 2002 that the country had restarted its nuclear program, which it had pledged to halt in 1994 in return for fuel oil and two light-water reactors to produce electricity.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Jinna Park of the Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this article.

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