President Barack Obama condemned North Korea’s nuclear test Tuesday as a “highly provocative act” that undermines regional stability and said the United States would take whatever steps are necessary to defend itself and its allies.
The test, North Korea’s third since 2006, violates numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions and deserves “swift and credible action” from the international community, Obama said in a statement released today by the White House.
“North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs constitute a threat to U.S. national security and to international peace,” he said. “The United States remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and steadfast in our defense commitments to allies in the region.”
The detonation marks an escalation in the global showdown over North Korea’s nuclear program and threatens to disrupt Obama’s second-term agenda dominated by domestic issues including the economy, gun control and immigration policy. The blast took place as he prepares to give his State of the Union address to a joint session of U.S. Congress tonight.
North Korea said it conducted the underground nuclear test Tuesday in a statement from its state-run Korean Central News Agency. The blast at 11:57 a.m. local time is a direct challenge to the international community, South Korean national security adviser Chun Yung-Woo said in a televised briefing in Seoul.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has worked to cement his legitimacy since inheriting the position from his late father in December 2011 by continuing a military-first policy while seeking to boost an impoverished economy.
Declaring the U.S. as “the sworn enemy of the Korean people,” North Korea said Jan. 24 it would carry out “a nuclear test of higher level,” according to a KCNA statement.
That threat followed an expansion of United Nations sanctions targeting the totalitarian regime on Jan. 22 after North Korea launched a long-range rocket in December. The UN sanctions were supported by China, North Korea’s closest ally.
Obama cited the regime’s missile test as part of a series of threatening actions that isolate North Korea and increase the threat of arms proliferation.
“These provocations do not make North Korea more secure,” the president said. “Far from achieving its stated goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation, North Korea has instead increasingly isolated and impoverished its people through its ill-advised pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.”
The U.S. response will pose an early diplomatic challenge to newly installed Secretary of State John Kerry, who last week warned of a “greater potential of conflict” in the event of a North Korean nuclear test.
“The people of North Korea are starving,” Kerry said on Feb. 7 in Washington. “They desperately need to become more open and connected to the world instead of harboring some of the worst gulags in the world where people are tortured, and forced labor.”
Six-nation talks to defuse tensions involving the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia haven’t been held since December 2008, and North Korea last month declared an end to them. Obama said the United States would work with those partners along with the UN to mount a quick response.
Today’s test was initially detected as a seismic disturbance. The U.S. Geological Survey said on its website that it had registered a 5.1 magnitude earthquake in North Korea at a depth of about one kilometer.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the blast had a yield of six to seven kilotons. By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, had an estimated yield of 15 kilotons and killed 140,000 people.
North Korea conducted its two prior atomic tests in 2006 and 2009 at the Punggye-ri nuclear site about 370 kilometers (230 miles) northeast of the capital, Pyongyang. The first in October 2006 yielded less than one kiloton and the second in May 2009 between five to six kilotons, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said today.
The nation has enough plutonium to produce four to eight basic nuclear weapons, according to estimates by Stanford University nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who visited North Korea’s uranium-enrichment and other atomic facilities in 2010.
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