WASHINGTON - The Bush administration warned North Korea for the first time yesterday that if it conducts a nuclear test, the United States and several Pacific powers would take punitive action, but officials stopped short of saying what kind of sanctions would result.
"Action would have to be taken," Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, said on CNN's Late Edition. Asked earlier on Fox News Sunday about recent reports that intelligence agencies had warned that North Korea could conduct its first test, Hadley added: "We've seen some evidence that says that they may be preparing for a nuclear test. We have talked to our allies about that."
But he cautioned that North Korea was "a hard target" and that correctly assessing its intentions was nearly impossible.
Hadley's warnings represent the first time anyone in the Bush administration has approached drawing a "red line" that North Korea could not cross without suffering penalties. The term red line was often used in the Cold War, with perhaps the most extreme example President John F. Kennedy's action in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to curb a nuclear risk.
In the case of North Korea, the threat has risen incrementally over 15 years. Bush aides have said over the past year that if they drew a clear line, the North Koreans probably would see it as a challenge and walk right up to it.
Yesterday afternoon, senior administration officials said that concerns about baiting North Korea helped to explain why Hadley did not specify what kind of penalty was possible. Instead, Hadley noted that "the Japanese are out today already saying that those steps would need to include going to the Security Council and, potentially, sanctions."
He appeared to be referring to comments by Shinzo Abe, the secretary general of Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party. Returning to Japan from a recent trip to Washington - where he met Hadley, Vice President Dick Cheney and others - Abe said Japan faces the most direct threat if North Korea proves it could detonate a nuclear weapon.
"If North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons becomes definite," Abe said on Asahi TV, and North Korea "conducts nuclear testing, for instance, Japan will naturally bring the issue to the U.N. and call for sanctions against North Korea."
Abe called it "unthinkable not to impose any sanctions in case of a nuclear testing."
During his visit to Washington, Abe acknowledged that making sanctions work would "depend on the cooperation of China," though he noted that Japan would be capable of cutting off a considerable flow of money into North Korea sent by ethnic Koreans living in Japan.
North Korea has repeatedly declared that it would consider any sanctions imposed through the United Nations an act of war.
Hadley, known for his caution, offered no specifics on possible sanctions.