N Korea eyes nuclear test in coal mine

North Korea is ”more or less ready” to conduct a nuclear test deep inside an abandoned coal mine but might hold off it can win concesssions from the United States, a Chinese source briefed by Pyongyang said on Friday.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a device would be detonated about 2 000 metres inside a mine near the border with China in the north of the country.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had issued instructions that the test should ”not excessively rock” Mount Paektu, a nearby peak many Koreans consider sacred.

”They are more or less ready,” the source told Reuters after speaking to North Korean officials. He did not give a timetable.

His comments could not be independently confirmed, but South Korea newspapers reported that although there were thousands of mine shafts that could be used for a test. Seoul and neighbouring countries were closely monitoring three or four sites.

The Hankook Ilbo newspaper said the most likely site was the administrative district of Gilju in North Hamkyung province.

This was the area mentioned in a report by United States television network ABC news in August that an US intelligence agency had observed suspicious vehicle movements as a suspected nuclear test site.

Hankook Ilbo said a test would not have to take place in Gilju since there are so many disused mine shafts, and named the districts of Hagab and Shijung in the province of Jagang, which shares a border with China, as potential sites.

”Finding the test site beforehand would be akin to finding a needle in the Han River,” it said.

Seeking concessions

The Chinese source said Pyongyang ”may not necessarily test”, and would hold off if Beijing and other Asian powers could convince the United States to lift sanctions and open dialogue.

New Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is due to visit China on Sunday and South Korea the next day for summits to repair ties frayed by feuds over their wartime past. But North Korea’s nuclear threat will grab a top spot on the agenda.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun visits China, North Korea’s closest ally and major donor, next Friday.

”The bilaterals will be useless unless they can talk the United States into changing its attitude and respecting North Korea’s sovereignty,” the Chinese source said.

Pyongyang has boycotted six-country talks aimed at persuading it to abandon its atomic arms programme for almost a year since the United States froze its assets in a Macau bank. Washington has said the move is part of a crackdown on suspected North Korean counterfeiting, money-laundering and drug-trafficking.

China has hosted the six-party talks since 2003, with the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia attending.

Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank that focuses on North Korea, said Pyongyang was attempting to use the threat of a nuclear test to press the United States into direct dialogue and concessions, including a lifting of financial restrictions.

”It’s a quite unprecedented use of nuclear weapons to force an adversary to do something, rather than refrain from doing something,” he said.

He said North Korea’s plans remained murky but the chances of a nuclear test were high.

”The chances are that they will do it, having said that they will,” he said. ”The DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] has been talking up its military power in the media for some time.” – Reuters

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