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World Leaders Respond to North Korea’s Claim of Nuclear Test

October 9, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: North Korea used state television today to tell the world it conducted its first nuclear test. Reading a government statement, the announcer called it a “historic event” and a “great leap forward” in the building of a “great, prosperous, powerful socialist nation.”

Several world geological agencies confirmed that a tremor originated about 240 miles northeast of the capital, Pyongyang. Condemnation was swift from world leaders.

In Washington, President Bush was warned the test was imminent moments before it went forward late last night. This morning, he spoke to reporters at the White House.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The United States condemns this provocative act. Once again, North Korea has defied the will of the international community. And the international community will respond.

The North Korean regime remains one of the world’s leading proliferator of missile technology, including transfers to Iran and Syria. The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable the consequences of such action.

KWAME HOLMAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin also denounced North Korea’s action and appealed for an international response.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, President of Russia (through translator): It doesn’t just concern North Korea. Enormous damage has been done to the process of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world. I hope North Korea will return to the negotiating process.

KWAME HOLMAN: The North’s neighbors, including South Korea, China and Japan, expressed worry the regional balance of power would be disrupted by a new nuclear state. China, a long-time ally of North Korea, called their test a “brazen act” and said the North “defied the universal opposition of international society.”

South Korea immediately increased military readiness along the heavily armed border, and its president, Roh Moo-Hyun, appealed for immediate action by the U.N. Security Council.

ROH MOO-HYUN, President, South Korea (through translator): It is better for the government to face this crisis full-on and share opinions internally and externally, rather than cope with it urgently and arbitrarily. South Korea will seek a stern yet calm and strategically coordinated measure to deal with the nuclear crisis.

KWAME HOLMAN: Roh also said the development would make it more difficult for the South to pursue reconciliation talks with the North.

In Seoul, protesters gathered this evening for a candlelight vigil. They also burned pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was in South Korea for a summit, said the test marked a new era in Asia.

SHINZO ABE, Prime Minister, Japan (through translator): The development and possession of nuclear weapons by North Korea will in a major way transform the security environment in North Asia, and we will be entering a new, dangerous age.

KWAME HOLMAN: North Korea long has claimed it had the capability to produce a nuclear bomb. In 2003, it withdrew from the non-proliferation treaty after expelling international inspectors. The North also has refused to return to six-party talks with the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea and Japan on its weapons program. It abandoned them last year.

Instead, North Korea demanded bilateral talks with the U.S. And last July, it again defied international pressure and tested seven missiles, similar to this one launched in 1998. In New York, members of the U.N. Security Council met in a closed emergency session to consider efforts to bring North Korea back to six-party talks.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton said the U.S. is seeking sanctions to curb North Korea’s import and export of weapons components.

North Korea's nuclear technology

Sigfried Hecker
Former Director, Los Alamos Laboratory
I haven't seen any of the actual data, but from the scientific networks, one has heard half a kiloton from South Korea, one kiloton or so from Australia, and one kiloton from France.

MARGARET WARNER: And for that, we go to Sigfried Hecker. He's the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He's twice been to North Korea. And he joins us now from Stanford University, where he is a visiting fellow at its Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Mr. Hecker, thank you for joining us.

How persuasive do you find the evidence or the signs that, in fact, this explosion was nuclear?

SIGFRIED HECKER, Former Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory: Good evening, Margaret. Thank you for having me.

At this point, it's still very early to tell. Until we get a full analysis of the seismic signals, it's difficult to tell. But what we know at this time is that the estimates from the scientific stations close to North Korea would peg this at perhaps half-a-kiloton to one-kiloton yield, in which case I would certainly put it into the realm of a real nuclear explosion, although quite of low yield.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if we say it's a nuclear explosion, what does that really mean? Does that mean they have a nuclear bomb, or is it some other sort of device?

SIGFRIED HECKER: Well, one sometimes differentiates between a device and a bomb of the bomb being deliverable, and that is it's actually made it to a delivery vehicle, in other words, being able to be put into a plane or put on a missile. But the bottom line is, at one kiloton, it would be a bomb. One kiloton set off in Manhattan would be a catastrophe.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you say "deliverable," would something of the nature that -- let's say it's one kiloton, for the purposes of argument. Is that deliverable in some way that is less sophisticated than a missile, for example, on a tanker?

SIGFRIED HECKER: Well, it's not at all clear, you know, how sophisticated their device is. One would have expected them to test something that's quite primitive on the order of, let's say, the plutonium bomb used in Nagasaki. There we're talking about 10,000 pounds. Perhaps they've made it somewhat smaller than that, but nevertheless that's more for deliverable on a tanker or perhaps a big plane, not on a missile.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain to us how there can be such a disagreement about even the size of this explosion. As you said, I think the South Koreans are saying, it's about a kiloton. I think the Australians, that was their estimate. The Russians were saying five to 15. What are these different seismologists looking at? And how can they come up with such different analyses?

SIGFRIED HECKER: I haven't seen any of the actual data, but from the scientific networks, one has heard half a kiloton from South Korea, one kiloton or so from Australia, and one kiloton from France. The Russian message was delivered by a politician and not by a scientist. I'm not quite sure how authoritative that is.

At the half- to one-kiloton, that would not be that unusual a variation. And, of course, since what we're talking about in a seismic signal is we're listening, and that means the closest listening point would have the best opportunity to pick up the signal, and that would be South Korea. But in all fairness, we still need to wait a few days until all the data can be analyzed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, that's what U.S. officials have been saying, that it will take intelligence analysts several days to figure out what really happened. What will they be looking at? What evidence will they have that they don't have now?

SIGFRIED HECKER: Well, it's just a matter of doing the analysis of the seismic signal itself to make sure that one understands the seismic signal and whether one can tell where there's some specific indication as to whether this might have been, indeed, a nuclear test. So analyzing the signal would be the first important aspect.

The second one is, you have to translate the seismic signal into what the energy of the explosion was -- in other words, what the yield was --and that takes a good understanding of the geology of where the test was actually conducted.

And so it would not be surprising that scientists would differ, and so I would expect scientists to compare their notes, analyze the seismic signal, use their models to make a yield prediction.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if it were one kiloton, is it feasible, is it possible that that could be done by just thousands of tons of conventional explosives?

SIGFRIED HECKER: That gets on the high side, but it still would be possible to do.




SIGFRIED HECKER: But at one kiloton, we would be looking at something that really looks more like a nuclear explosion than a conventional. Of course, the other aspects, what one could look for is whatever evidence we may have had ahead of time as to what actually went into the areas where the nuclear explosion took place.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, finally, how good, how developed is their missile technology now?

SIGFRIED HECKER: I'm sorry. Could you repeat that?

MARGARET WARNER: How well-developed is the North Koreans' missiles technology? Their last test was in July.

SIGFRIED HECKER: Right. Of course, the missile tests are a very different issue. The question is, you know, could they have developed a device that actually fits on a missile? My own opinion of that is that, whereas they could have some reasonable confidence in a primitive device, and that is a big device of the order of Nagasaki, it would be very difficult to have confidence in a small device that you can fit on a missile.

I would also find it surprising, if they tested such a small, you know, miniaturized advanced design first. And so in most likelihood, at least what one does in mirror imaging, is that it was a primitive device at low yield. There's no indication at this point whether they've done anything with an advanced design.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Sigfried Hecker, thank you so much.

Proving its military might

Edward Luck
Columbia University
It's one thing to have a military-first policy, but if your economy is falling apart, you're repressing your people, then really you're not having any other choices.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what the rest of the world can do about what North Korea has done. Edward Luck is director of the Center on International Organization at Columbia University. He's the former president of the United Nations Association of the U.S.

Don Oberdorfer is chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has written frequently about Korea as an author and earlier as diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post.

Don Oberdorfer, what's your best analysis of why North Korea did this right now? What are they up to?

DON OBERDORFER, U.S.-Korea Institute, Johns Hopkins: North Korea has wanted nuclear weapons for a very long time, really been working on it since the 1960s. They feel surrounded.

If you look at the Korean peninsula, this is a little thing coming down from the mainland of Asia, a little peninsula, surrounded by Japan, China and Russia, three of the great powers of the world. South Korea has turned its eyes outward to deal with the rest of the world. North Korea did the opposite and tried to shut up the country, turned inward.

But they feel threatened. And when somebody feels threatened, if you keep pushing them, and pushing them, and pushing them, as some of their colleagues in some the other countries do, they want to get the best weaponry, the most powerful weaponry. It's now a military-first state. Shortly before the United States...

JIM LEHRER: Military-first state, meaning what?

DON OBERDORFER: Meaning that the military has more authority there than anybody else. Of course, they're the guys with the guns.


DON OBERDORFER: But they have been proclaimed -- Kim Jong Il has proclaimed a military-first policy.

Shortly before the United States invaded Iraq, I was in North Korea. And a North Korean general said to me, "We see what you're getting ready to do with Iraq, and you are not going to do it to us." And I think his message was: We're going to get weapons that are going to make you pause if you think about coming after North Korea.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Luck, what would you add to that?

EDWARD LUCK, Center on International Organization: Well, I think we have to see the contrasts between South Korea today with its foreign...

JIM LEHRER: No, I mean, excuse me -- I'm sorry, to the specific question of why North Korea did this today. What are they up to? The same question I asked Don to begin with.

EDWARD LUCK: Right. Well, I mean, I was saying that I think there's a great contrast between their view of the world and that of South Korea. North Korea really doesn't seem to have anything else going for it.

And I think he's right: They want a deterrent. They want to be able to stop any kind of military intervention there with this. But at the same time one has to ask: What else is going on in that society?


EDWARD LUCK: It's one thing to have a military-first policy, but if your economy is falling apart, you're repressing your people, then really you're not having any other choices.

So I think it's a question maybe not of threatening North Korea, but of convincing them that the cost of going this direction, of developing nuclear weapons, is, in fact, not worth paying and there may be some inducements to try to make peace with the rest of the world, change their direction, and give up on this nuclear quest.

International community responds

Don Oberdofer
John Hopkins University
And for the Chinese to begin to take a different attitude toward North Korea may be an extremely important thing, and they voted for that. In fact, they wrote the resolution.

JIM LEHRER: Well, moving onto that, at the United Nations Security Council today, the U.S. ambassador -- we heard him say it in our news summary -- that this was an unusual, extraordinary event today, where everybody in the Security Council agreed. Nobody spoke up on behalf of North Korea. First of all, do you agree that's an extraordinary event? And how important is it?

EDWARD LUCK: Well, it's certainly a very important event. We've noticed, though, in the last few years there has been a lot of agreement in the Security Council on a number of important issues, not all of them, but a lot of resolutions that have passed by very large majorities, very often by consensus.

And I think this is a kind of issue that unites countries, by and large. It's also the kind of issue on which no one is going to take the North's side of this. And we should remember that, in the six-party talks with the North, you've had the U.S., you've had China, Russia, three permanent members, and you've had Japan, which happens to be the president of the Security Council this month. So all the big players, I think, are on the same side.

JIM LEHRER: Don Oberdorfer, as a practical matter, what can the U.N. Security Council do now that might, might be effective?

DON OBERDORFER: Well, of course, they're going to pass a resolution, but that's not going to solve anything in itself. As I understand it, the United States is asking the Security Council for the authority to stop and inspect all shipping going in and out of North Korea, which sounds like a pretty draconian, ineffective thing, except that most of what goes into North Korea does not go by water. It goes from China overland -- there's a huge, long border between China and North Korea -- or it comes from South Korea, which, of course, goes right across the demilitarized zone.

On this issue about the unanimity of the Security Council, let us not forget that, last July, after North Korea fired these ballistic missiles test on July 4th, our time, July 5th their time, the Security Council passed a unanimous resolution that the Chinese actually wrote which condemned North Korea.

Now, this is something new: China is their main backer. They're also the main supplier of food and energy from the outside. And for the Chinese to begin to take a different attitude toward North Korea may be an extremely important thing, and they voted for that. In fact, they wrote the resolution.

So, to me, the most interesting thing here is: What are the Chinese going to do in these circumstances?

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mr. Luck, that the Chinese will do? And do you agree with Don Oberdorfer that they're the important player right now?

EDWARD LUCK: Well, they certainly are. I think Don is right about that. China is critical to all of this, not only because of its position on the Security Council, but also obviously its position and the aid it's been giving to North Korea.

I hope that China will at least abstain on a resolution invoking sanctions. Occasionally, China has voted for those kinds of resolutions, but they're very sensitive about sanctions for fear that some day they might be aimed towards them.

So I would hope that China would, in fact, be policing its border, watching the things coming out of Korea, and would agree to a multilateral sanction, in terms of an embargo on any kinds of military technology going in and out of North Korea that in any way could assist this effort.

I don't think it's such a bad thing that so much of the traffic goes through China. It's time now for the Chinese to stand up. If they're serious about this -- after all, North Korea has embarrassed Chinese diplomacy very much -- then they have a chance to crack down right on their border and put some real pressure.

I think the North Koreans, among other things, don't believe all the words that they're hearing from the international leaders and from the Security Council. This has to be backed up.

We're seeing the same problem with Iran. If we don't want to go to a world with many nuclear powers, we are going to have to put our acts in order here and not just talk about these things, but actually have our deeds follow our words?

JIM LEHRER: Well, what do you think would be the most effective thing that the international community could do to get the message to North Korea that it needs to hear?

EDWARD LUCK: Well, first of all, I think it has to be united. That's very important. So the fact that the condemnation of the tests made by the council on Friday was absolutely united, the fact, I think, that they're going to have, if not a united resolution, something very, very close to it, saying that, in fact, this is a threat to international peace and security.

That's the main thing. North Korea has to realize that it can't play splitting tactics with the major powers, that we're all in this together, we all basically have the basic position. While you have to, at the same time, I think, offer some carrots -- and the U.N. can do that. I mean, the World Food Program has had a major role in the past in providing food.

If you go to any kind of inspections eventually on the North Korean nuclear program, it's probably going to be through the International Atomic Energy Agency. The secretary-general can offer a mediation service over time. It would be very odd if this happens after January, with the former foreign minister...

JIM LEHRER: Former minister of South -- yes.

EDWARD LUCK: ... of South Korea, but there's many things the U.N. can do to be helpful.

Downsides of a nuclear standoff

Edward Luck
Columbia University
But this case, the fact that North Korea has very few outlets, the fact that China is so critical to its exports, the fact that you can, in fact, if you have an international sanction, you can block ships going in and out, inspect them.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see a hopeful scenario, Don Oberdorfer?

DON OBERDORFER: Not much, I have to say. The U.S. and its allies and friends in Asia are all united in condemning the tests, but they're not united about what to do about it.

The Chinese are very worried about anything that seems like it's going to bring down the North Korean regime; that would mean millions of poverty-stricken North Koreans flooding into China. Moreover, it would mean, if they were united with South Korea, a border with a country that is an ally of the United States. China does not want that.

South Korea is very cautious. They're the same people, South Koreans and North Koreans, and they want to get along with North Korea.

So U.S. and Japan are pushing for very tough sanctions, but the Chinese and the South Koreans are going to be very weary of anything that they think is going to bring down the North Korean government or in some way greatly impede the process of government in North Korea. And how you attack their nuclear ambitions without causing a big upset within the country, that would be a very difficult thing to do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mr. Luck, that there's an awful lot of downside here that, as well as the scenario you outlined, this could happen, this could happen, and this could happen? But what do you think of what Don just said?

EDWARD LUCK: Well, I think basically he's on the right track. I mean, there's a balancing act here. We're not trying to starve the people any more than they already are in North Korea. Whatever kinds of sanctions should have major exemptions for food, for medical, for these kinds of things, certainly all the humanitarian kinds of exemptions.

But you can crackdown on technology related to the military. It seems to me that's absolutely critical, and you can make that differentiation. You know, we've tried it in the past. Sometimes it's worked; sometimes it hasn't. In Iraq, it was a fairly mixed case.

But this case, the fact that North Korea has very few outlets, the fact that China is so critical to its exports, the fact that you can, in fact, if you have an international sanction, you can block ships going in and out, inspect them. Obviously, South Korea is not going to help the North build its nuclear capability.

And I think Don's comment about South Korea being such an ally of the U.S. I think is an interesting point, but I'd be a little more nuanced. When it comes to dealing with North Korea, the South has taken a rather different and somewhat softer view than Washington has, certainly encouraging dialogue. Its Sunshine Policy towards the North has not been particularly welcome with the Bush administration.

The fact that China agreed that the foreign trade minister of South Korea was the right person to head the U.N. is quite striking. If China thought that he was simply in the U.S. back pocket, I don't think they'd take that position.

So I think Korea has grown up, at least South Korea has. It's a country now that can stand on its own feet. It's been extremely successful. And I think it can talk back to the U.S., to China, and some of the others, and have quite an independent foreign policy. And someday the North might recognize this, as well.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to that?

DON OBERDORFER: Well, I don't want to be misunderstood about South Korea. I said the Chinese are wary of having a united Korea on their border allied to the United States, because they don't want the U.S. or U.S. troops on their border.

You know, what the U.N. is trying to do or talking about is trying to isolate the already most isolated country, probably, in the world, as a major country. They have isolated themselves. And so to try to exert pressure against North Korea, which is already so isolated, by isolating them more, it's not in my mind a recipe for great success.

I don't know how the world community can operate with this. I think Mr. Luck is entirely right that there needs to be an effort to get everybody together on the same page, not just to condemn -- of course, we can all do that...


DON OBERDORFER: ... but to decide what to do next about North Korea. And I'm not sure that will happen. I hope it will happen, because I think it's the only way to deal with what is a major new problem for the world.

JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, thank you both.

EDWARD LUCK: Can I make a comment on that?

JIM LEHRER: Yes. One sec. Do you agree it's a major new problem for the world?

EDWARD LUCK: It's a major problem. I wish it was (inaudible) but it certainly more than crosses the threshold. It's a very, very serious threat.

But just one thing: I don't think the effort of the U.N. is to try to isolate North Korea. It seems to me the U.N. is one of the few places where it actually sits as a full-fledge member, with the same vote as the U.S. and the General Assembly.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

EDWARD LUCK: The fact that the U.S. and North have had meetings, they've been at their missions at the U.N., because it's a place where they all can meet even if you don't recognize each other.

JIM LEHRER: We take your point, and we thank you both very much.