North Korea claims first-ever successful nuclear test

North Korea today boasted that it successfully tested a nuclear weapon, sparking a barrage of global condemnation and threats of harsh sanctions over an underground blast that appeared to thrust the volatile communist state into the elite club of nuclear-armed nations.

The explosion prompted worldwide concern it could seriously destabilise the region, and even Pyongyang’s ally China said it strongly opposed the move. South Korea’s spy chief said there were possible indications the North was moving to conduct more tests.

The US called for immediate UN Security Council action, and along with Japan was expected to press for more sanctions on the impoverished North.

There were conflicting reports on the size of the blast. South Korea said it was relatively small, while Russia said it had been perhaps as powerful as the nuclear bombs the US dropped on Japan during the Second World War.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said the underground test was performed successfully “with indigenous wisdom and technology 100%”, and that no radiation leaked from the test site.

“It marks a historic event as it greatly encouraged and pleased the (Korean People’s Army) and people that have wished to have powerful self-reliant defence capability,” KCNA said, adding that it was “a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous powerful socialist nation”.

If details of the test are confirmed, North Korea would be the ninth country known to have nuclear weapons, along with the United States, Russia, France, China, Britain, India, Pakistan and Israel.

A nuclear North Korea would dramatically alter the strategic balance of power in the Pacific region and seriously undermine global anti-proliferation efforts. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said the test would mark the beginning of a “dangerous nuclear age” in north Asia.

Australia and South Korea said there was seismic confirmation that pointed to a nuclear test, and a top Russian military officer confirmed the device tested was a nuclear weapon, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. However, Japan and the United States said they couldn’t immediately confirm a nuclear test.

South Korea’s seismic monitoring centre said a magnitude 3.6 tremor felt at the time of the alleged nuclear test wasn’t a natural occurrence.

The size of the tremor could indicate an explosive equivalent to 550 tons of TNT, said Park Chang-soo, spokesman at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources – which would be far smaller than the nuclear bombs the US dropped on Japan in the Second World War.

But Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said that the force of the blast was between five and 15 kilotons and that there was “no doubt” there had been a nuclear blast, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported.

The head of South Korea’s spy agency said the blast was equivalent to less than 1 kiloton of TNT, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported. National Intelligence Service chief Kim Seung-kyu also told politicians that there were signs of suspicious movement at another suspected test site, Yonhap said.

The atomic bomb that struck Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, had the destructive power of about 15 kilotons of TNT.

The US Geological Survey said it recorded a seismic event with a preliminary magnitude of 4.2 in north-eastern North Korea coinciding with the test claim, but survey official Bruce Presgrave said the agency was unable to tell if it was an atomic explosion or a natural earthquake.

Nuclear blasts give off clear seismic signatures that differentiate them from other explosions, said Friedrich Steinhaeusler, a professor of physics at Salzburg University. Even if the bomb the North Koreans detonated was small, sensors in South Korea would likely be close enough to categorise the explosion as nuclear, he said.

“I think we have to take them at their word. They’re not the type of regime to bluff,” said Peter Beck, Seoul-based analyst for conflict resolution think tank International Crisis Group.

The White House said a test defied world opinion against it.

“A North Korean nuclear test would constitute a provocative act in defiance of the will of the international community and of our call to refrain from actions that would aggravate tensions in Northeast Asia,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said, adding that the US expects immediate action at the UN Security Council.

A Security Council resolution adopted in July after a series of North Korean missile launches imposed limited sanctions on North Korea and demanded the country rejoin international nuclear talks. The North immediately rejected the plea.

Also at the Security Council, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was expected later today to be nominated as the next secretary-general of the United Nations. Ban has said he would use the post, which he would assume at year’s end, to press for a resolution of the North Korean nuclear stand-off.

British prime minister Tony Blair said the test was a “completely irresponsible act”, and the British Foreign Office warned of international repercussions.

Japan’s Abe, in Seoul for a summit meeting, said the “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 nuclear age.”

“North Korea will be held responsible for the situation it has created,” Abe said.

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