North Korea: epicentre of a new nuclear arms race

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World leaders reacted with grim dismay to news that North Korea had successfully conducted its first nuclear test, an act of wilful defiance which threatens to redraw the strategic map of the entire Asian region and precipitate a global diplomatic crisis of uncalculated proportions.

The blast, at an underground facility in North Hamgyong province, was believed to have occurred at 11.36am North Korean time yesterday. Although seismic experts in other countries were trying to verify the claim, there seemed no reason to believe North Korea was bluffing.

Russian experts said they believed the claim was accurate and that the explosion may have had the power of about 15 kilotons of TNT, roughly the same as the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. "We have no doubt that it was a nuclear explosion," said Russia's Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov. Counterparts in South Korea and the US speculated it may have been on a smaller scale.

North Korea forged ahead with the test in the face of demands that it desist, issued by the UN Security Council last Friday. An emergency meeting of the Security Council was convened yesterday after news that a test had taken place.

The only warning given by the North Koreans was to their counterparts in China about half-an-hour before the device was detonated. Chinese officials sounded the alarm in a telephone call to the US embassy in Beijing.

The US, backed by Britain, France and Japan, went to the UN demanding the imposition of a series of punitive measures.

It has taken North Korea almost four decades to piece together the technology to bring its nuclear ambitions to a head. With one detonation yesterday morning, it inserted itself into the club of so-called "undeclared" nuclear powers, previously made up of Israel (which still has never admitted having such a capacity), Pakistan and India.

The crisis comes at a time when Japan has a new, more nationalist-minded Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Japan was already debating whether its previously sacred tenet, held since the Second World War, that it should remain free of nuclear weapons should be reviewed. Mr Abe said the test marked the start of a "dangerous nuclear age" in northern Asia. Pressure will also be applied to South Korea to end its so-called "sunshine" policy of trying to thaw relations with its neighbour.

Yesterday, the Security Council formally approved the selection of Ban Ki Moon, the current South Korean Foreign Minister, as the next UN secretary general, taking office on 1 January. He vowed to use the office to engage North Korea in closer discussion with the UN.

Aside from the ripple effects that North Korea's new nuclear status may have on other countries in the region, there is deep concern over the threat of nuclear proliferation with Pyongyang possibly looking to sell its technology to clients in other regions of the world.

The blast demonstrates the failure of years of diplomatic efforts by the US and other nations to deflect North Korea from its nuclear path. Even China, North Korea's only ally, had recently made clear its disapproval of a nuclear test. North Korea had signed an agreement with the Clinton administration in 1994 to freeze its nuclear activities, but the pact unravelled and, three years ago, the country ejected international nuclear inspectors from its complex at Yongbyon.

The North Korean News Agency said the test "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".

In London, the test was condemned by Tony Blair as a "completely irresponsible act" as the UK joined members of the UN Security Council in preparing sanctions which are likely to include freezing the bank accounts of the regime's leaders. The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said: "The UK will be pushing for a robust response under Chapter 7 of the [UN] Charter. Put simply, this means we shall be pushing for sanctions ."

President Vladimir Putin said the test "doesn't just concern North Korea; enormous damage has been done to the process of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world".

In July, the UN passed a resolution banning trade with North Korea in any goods and technologies related to weapons of mass destruction after the regime launched several ballistic missiles without provocation.

The resolution did not have Chapter 7 backing - which gives any resolution maximum legal backing - and it was rejected by officials in Pyongyang.

In New York, China's ambassador, Wang Guangya, said his government was ready to "join Security Council members to discuss a firm, constructive but prudent reaction" to the test. Russia's Vitaly Churkin said keeping "cool heads" remained important, suggesting Russia was wary about Chapter 7 authorisation. Diplomats acknowledged that the positions of Russia and China were key to the prospects of adopting a text with any real bite. "We don't know what they mean at this stage, but we will see as discussion of the resolution starts," a source close to the Security Council said.

Unimposing, pudgy, two-dimensional, yet Kim Jong Il rules with an iron fist

By Carol Clark

Wielding absolute power in one of the most volatile regions on the planet, the personality of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, is hidden in a fog of propaganda as secretive as the nuclear arms programme.

He has allowed his voice to be broadcast only once. That was eight years ago during a Pyongyang military parade, when he said: "Glory to the Korean People's Army."

Scholars of the Pyongyang regime are unsure what lies behind the figure only occasionally glimpsed in public. He looks unimposing in photographs, but the short, pudgy and bespectacled man has managed to pull off the first communist dynastic succession in history. The dictator of the "Hermit Kingdom" has made only three known trips abroad and he rarely receives outsiders. The South Korean intelligence agency has portrayed Mr Kim as an unstable madman, a cognac- swilling playboy serviced by a team of women known as the "Pleasure Squad". But in recent years the rhetoric has changed considerably. A senior South Korean official was recently quoted as saying that Mr Kim possesses a genius IQ, and intelligence sources are now calling him a "computer wizard".

North Korea gives Mr Kim's official birthplace as Mount Paektu. The peak is the site where Korean legend says the nation came into existence 5,000 years ago. But Mr Kim was actually born on 16 February 1942 in the Soviet Union, where his father, Kim Il Sung, had fled from the Japanese. When the family returned after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Josef Stalin anointed Kim Il Sung as the leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. After graduating from Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University in 1964, Kim the younger took over cultural affairs. In 1980, Kim Il Sung formally designated his son as his successor. He took on the title "Dear Leader" and the government began spinning a personality cult around him patterned after that of his father, the "Great Leader".

GEORGE BUSH, US PRESIDENT: 'The transfer of nuclear weapons or materiel by North Korea to states or non-state entities would bea grave threat to the US'

BAN KI MOON, SOUTH KOREAN MINISTER: 'I stand here with a heavy heart'

SHINZO ABE, JAPANESE PM: 'The development of nuclear weapons by North Korea will transform the security environment in North Asia and we will be entering a new nuclear age'

MARGARET BECKETT, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: 'We shall be pushing for sanctions'

FOREIGN MINISTRY OF CHINA: 'China expresses its resolute opposition'

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT: 'Enormous damage has been done to nonproliferation'