SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea announced Tuesday that it will conduct a nuclear test in the face of what it claimed was an “extreme threat of a nuclear war” by the United States. The declaration provoked alarm and condemnation from leaders around the world.
The United States warned a North Korean nuclear test “would pose an unacceptable threat to peace and stability” and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations raised the issue during a Security Council meeting. The council agreed to hold further discussions on Wednesday after consulting capitals.
Other world leaders also urged the reclusive communist nation to reconsider its plan, and South Korea raised its security level.
The statement from Pyongyang gave no precise date for a test, but the prospect that North Korea could soon take a major step forward in its nuclear weapons development raised concern in foreign capitals from Moscow to Washington.
It was the first time the North had publicly announced its intent to conduct a nuclear test. Previously, it had warned that it might conduct a test, depending on U.S. actions.
The announcement was not a big surprise to many observers of North Korea because U.S. intelligence reports previously had indicated that Pyongyang might be preparing a nuclear test. Many experts believe the North has enough radioactive material to build at least a half-dozen or more nuclear weapons.
Moreover, North Korea has a history of provocative statements or military actions such as missile tests, apparently designed to pressure the international community into making concessions while refraining from all-out confrontation with the U.S. and others.
But the exact timing of such North Korean actions is almost impossible to predict. Pyongyang staged missile tests on July 4, needling the United States on its Independence Day. The nuclear test declaration also comes ahead of U.S. congressional elections, as well as the likely election of South Korea’s foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, as secretary-general of the United Nations.
“The U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel the DPRK to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a self-defense measure in response,” the North’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, using its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The White House, which has denied it has any intention of attacking the communist nation, denounced the threat on Tuesday and said it would serve to further isolate Pyongyang.
A nuclear test “would pose an unacceptable threat to peace and stability in Asia and the world,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement. “A provocative action of this nature would only further isolate the North Korean regime and deny the people of the North the benefits they so rightly deserve.”
Frederick Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council, also said a nuclear test would “severely undermine” U.S. confidence in North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization and to stalled six-party talks — and would pose a threat to peace and security in Asia and the world.
He said the United States would continue to work through diplomatic channels with its partners to discourage “such a reckless action, and will respond appropriately.”
U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said he urged members to engage in “preventive diplomacy” and hold a brainstorming session “to come up not just with a knee jerk reaction … but to develop a coherent strategy to convince them that it’s not in their interest to engage in nuclear testing.”
But France’s U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere said he wants a swift council statement, and China’s U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said the best place to deal with the threat is in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. Wang urged stepped up efforts to get the North to return to the stalled talks.
Multilateral talks on North Korea’s nuclear program have been stalled for almost a year, with Pyongyang boycotting the six-nation talks in protest over U.S. financial restrictions imposed for its alleged illegal activity, including money laundering and counterfeiting.
Efforts to bring the North back to negotiations took on added urgency after the communist nation test-fired seven missiles in July, including one believed to be capable of reaching the United States. But little progress has been made.
Pyongyang has said it has nuclear weapons, but has not conducted any known test to prove its claim. South Korea’s spy agency has said the North could test a nuclear bomb at any time.
“A nuclear test would be unforgivable for Japan and for the international community,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
His comments were echoed by the Japanese foreign minister, Taro Aso.
“Our response will be severe. This is more serious than the North’s missile tests,” Aso said.
South Korea “has begun discussions with related countries,” the country’s presidential office said in a statement. Yoon Tae-young, a presidential spokesman, said the increased security level would mean “intensifying, among other things, the monitoring system to detect signs of North Korea’s nuclear testing.”
Under a worst-case scenario, a North Korean nuclear test could prompt Japan to seek its own nuclear deterrent, raising tensions with China and South Korea, both of which suffered under Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century.
China, North Korea’s neighbor, ally and chief benefactor, had no immediate comment.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry voiced strong concern Tuesday, saying North Korea’s plans to conduct a nuclear test would “further exacerbate the military-political situation on the Korean Peninsula and around it.” Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed doubt about the report.
“This is not the first time we have heard reports that North Korea announced there will soon be a test of a missile or a nuclear device or something,” Lavrov said at a news conference. “In the vast majority of cases, these reports have not been substantiated.”
In Finland, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said such a test “is always bad news.”
The North said Tuesday its ultimate goal is “to settle hostile relations between the DPRK and the U.S. and to remove the very source of all nuclear threats from the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity,” accusing the U.S. of posing a nuclear threat in the region.
The North, however, said it will “never use nuclear weapons first and strictly prohibit any threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear transfer.”
Charles Kartman, who was the lead negotiator with North Korea under the Clinton administration, said last week that North Korea had few other options than saber-rattling.
“If they feel they are not getting interaction with us, they tend to do things to get our attention. And the tools that they have are all bad ones,” he said. “The missiles, the nuclear program, the military.”