North Korea 'closer than ever' to a nuclear test

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The Independent Online

Signs are multiplying that a defiant North Korea may soon conduct its long-expected nuclear test - deliberately timed to coincide with the United Nations conference this month aimed at curbing the spread of nuclear weapons.

A senior Japanese official said yesterday that Tokyo had information that the secretive Communist state may be close to a test, while images beamed back from United States intelligence satellites show what appear to be highly advanced preparations at a site near Kilju in the north-east of the country.

These include the construction of a tunnel similar to one built by Pakistan when it conducted an underground nuclear test in 1998, into which the device is placed. A reviewing stand for dignitaries has also been built, several miles from the suspected site.

"What we're seeing is everything needed to test," an American official told The New York Times, noting that such intense preparations had never been observed before. "This looks like the real thing, there is wide agreement in the intelligence community."

As usual with North Korea, nothing is certain in its years-old game of nuclear cat and mouse with the West. Satellites have yet to detect the monitoring devices normally used for tests, and some analysts argue the heightened activity could be a bluff, designed to increase Pyongyang's bargaining power in the six-nation negotiations over the future of its nuclear programme.

Those talks - involving the US, China, Russia, the two Koreas and Japan - are on ice, after the North walked out earlier this year, announcing unequivocally for the first time that it possessed a nuclear weapon. But there have been hints of late that Pyongyang may be ready to rejoin the forum, in the hope of securing more economic aid from the West.

Equally plausible, however, is the theory that the regime of Kim Jong-Il might be planning a grand gesture of defiance to upstage the current review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - from which Pyongyang withdrew in early 2003. "We can't tell what they're doing," an American official confessed to The New York Times.

The assumption in the US has been that North Korea now has enough material for half a dozen nuclear bombs, in the form of plutonium obtained from the reprocessing of 8,000 spent fuel rods from its existing nuclear reactor. It also told the US it was pursuing a parallel clandestine uranium enrichment programme - another means of building a bomb.

Fears are also growing in Washington that the North now has the capability of mounting a warhead on a long-range missile, capable of striking some western parts of the US. Earlier this week, Pyongyang carried out two tests of a short-range missile in the Sea of Japan, just as the NPT talks opened in New York.

What happens next is unclear. President Bush spoke at length by phone with China's leader, Hu Jintao, while Japanese officials say Tokyo might take the North's nuclear programme to the UN. Further sanctions would have little impact on a country already among the most isolated on the planet.