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US Pentagon chief calls North Korea's military intentions a 'serious threat' following another nuclear test in defiance of UN orders

Leon Panetta described North Korea as a 'rogue state' during a speech at the Pentagon

North Korea’s nuclear intentions are a “serious threat” to the United States, according to outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta.

North Korea today confirmed it carried out a third nuclear test, drawing condemnation from western leaders and defying UN orders for the country to stop building atomic weapons.

Following the announcement, Mr Panetta described North Korea as a “rogue state” during his farewell speech at the Pentagon.

Mr Panetta said: “We're going to have to deal with weapons of mass destruction and the proliferation. We're going to have to continue with rogue states like Iran and North Korea.”

He added: “We just saw what North Korea's done in these last few weeks - a missile test and now a nuclear test. They represent a serious threat to the United States of America. We've got to be prepared to deal with that.”

Mr Panetta’s speech came ahead of a State of the Union address by President Barack Obama later today.

Earlier, the President described North Korea’s nuclear test as a “highly provocative act” and called for “swift” and “credible” international action in response.

Following “artificial” seismic activity detected by South Korea, Japan and the US at around 11:57am Korean time (02:57 GMT), the North Korean regime confirmed it had successfully detonated a “miniaturised” nuclear device in an underground test.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency said: “A third nuclear test has been successfully staged…The nuclear test was conducted as part of measures to protect our national security and sovereignty against the reckless hostility of the United States that violated our republic's right for a peaceful satellite launch.”

Foreign Secretary William Hague “strongly condemned” the nuclear test, calling it a “violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions” and added that UN resolutions committed the Security Council to take “significant action” in the event of a further launch or nuclear test by North Korea.

“The UK will begin urgent consultations with security council partners calling for a robust response to this latest development,” he said.

“North Korea has a choice to make - it can either engage constructively with the international community, cease developing its nuclear and ballistic missiles programme and return to negotiations, or face increasing isolation and further action by the Security Council and the international community.”

UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon added that the test was “a clear and grave violation” of UN Security Council resolutions.

It is believed that the UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting in New York to discuss the nuclear test later today.

The underground explosion could take North Korea a big step closer to its goal of building a nuclear warhead small enough to be mounted on a long-range missile that could threaten the United States.

Official state media said the test was conducted in a safe manner and aimed at coping with “outrageous” US hostility that “violently” undermined the North's peaceful, sovereign rights to launch satellites.

North Korea faced sanctions after a December launch of a rocket the UN and Washington called a cover for a banned missile test.

The North said it used a “lighter, miniaturised atomic bomb” that still has more explosive force than past tests.

The United States Geological Survey said it had detected a 4.9 magnitude earthquake in North Korea.

The nuclear test is North Korea's first since leader Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.

It makes a bold statement for the young leader as he unveils his domestic and foreign policy for a country long estranged from the West.

Experts say regular tests are needed to perfect North Korea's goal of building nuclear warheads small enough to be placed on long-range missiles.

This atomic test - North Korea's third since 2006 - is expected to take Pyongyang closer to possessing nuclear-tipped missiles designed to strike the United States.