SYDNEY MORNING HERALD – North Korea has conducted 70 high-explosive tests linked to nuclear weapons development, South Korea’s spy chief was quoted as saying last night. The claim was made just hours after the Prime Minister, John Howard, began reining in Australia’s tough talk on North Korea, amid warnings that military threats could provoke a nuclear confrontation.
A senior source in Seoul said that Ko Young-Koo, a National Intelligence Service director, had told parliament: ‘We have also noticed high-explosive tests being conducted in Yongdok district in Gusong City in [the north-western province of] North Pyongyang and we have been keeping track of the movement.”
He also said that North Korea had apparently begun reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods, a program that could yield enough plutonium for half-a-dozen atomic bombs within months.
Conventional high explosives are used to trigger atomic blasts. When detonated, they can compress a plutonium core and set off a compact nuclear blast.
Mr Howard yesterday moved to wind back growing expectations that Australia would send troops and naval ships to intercept North Korean vessels suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
The move came as he prepared to meet next week the South Korean President, Roh Moo-hyun, who has cautioned the West against matching the sabre-rattling in Pyongyang.
“We are not at this stage considering military contributions,” Mr Howard said. “We are considering ways and means of dealing with a very big problem.”
In a clear indication that Australia would pursue a cautious line on the developing nuclear crisis, Mr Howard said any action by the 11 nations involved in the Proliferation Security Initiative conference in Brisbane today – which will discuss “interdiction” of North Korean vessels – should be “measured and sensible”.
On Australian involvement in a force to stop and search suspect North Korean vessels, Mr Howard said: “We shouldn’t run ahead of ourselves; we just should take one step at a time.”
The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said it was “really a long way down the track” before an interception force could be put together and that Australians “don’t need to prepare themselves for [another military action] at this stage”.
The moderation of the Government’s comments comes as the United States appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
The Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton, who is attending the Brisbane conference, said Washington and its allies had the legal basis for a military interdiction force to stop North Korean vessels.
Australian defence officials were in Brisbane to outline Australia’s expertise in maritime interdiction, with Mr Downer saying that they were looking at what capabilities could be provided if any such force went ahead.
“[We are] looking of course at experience. We have had a lot of experience as part of the multinational interception force in Iraq in the Persian Gulf.”
As well, he said, Australia’s intelligence services could play a substantial role in monitoring North Korean vessels and aircraft for illicit cargo.
Mr Downer downplayed the absence of South Korea at the Brisbane conference.