Incoming South Korean President Steps Up Criticism of North Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea -- In her harshest criticism yet of North Korea, the incoming president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, warned on Wednesday that the North's pursuit of nuclear weapons will bring its government "self-destruction."

Ms. Park's comment came a day after North Korea defied worldwide warnings Tuesday by detonating what it called a miniaturized atomic bomb in its third nuclear test.

It remained unclear how close North Korea has come to building a nuclear warhead small enough to fit onto intercontinental ballistic missiles -- seen as the ultimate goal of the North's nuclear and missile programs. But the latest detonation was more than a nuclear test; it also tested the abilities of the new governments in the region to tame the North's nuclear and missile ambitions.

The test led to a new chorus of international outrage and threats of more sanctions, even though such responses have had little to no effect on North Korea's behavior after its previous tests.

But as the North steps closer to the weaponization of its nuclear devices and missile tests, some hard-line members of Ms. Park's governing Saenuri Party called for South Korea to secure its own "nuclear deterrent," while the main opposition party urged Ms. Park to help defuse the tension by sending a special envoy to the North.

"No matter how many nuclear tests North Korea conducts to bolster its nuclear capabilities, it will eventually bring itself self-destruction by wasting its resources," Ms. Park was quoted as saying by her office during a meeting with her national security and foreign affairs advisers on Wednesday. "Nuclear weapons did not prevent the old Soviet Union from collapsing."

Her comment followed -- and echoed the tone -- of President Obama's warning to North Korea during his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

North Korea's provocations "will only isolate them further," Mr. Obama said. "We stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

Mr. Obama spoke by phone with the departing South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, on Tuesday, and afterward, the White House made a rare public gesture of reaffirming American's "nuclear umbrella" over South Korea.

Ms. Park, who replaces Mr. Lee on Feb. 25, had been careful not to criticize North Korea. During her campaign for her December election, she opposed unconditional aid and economic investments of the sort championed by her liberal rivals, insisting that North Korea must first win the South's "trust" by easing its hostilities. But she also criticized the Mr. Lee's hard-line policy as failing to change North Korea's provocative behavior.

Ms. Park shifted to a firmer stance after the nuclear test.

She said that a central principle of her North Korea policy has been to "make sure that North Korea pays for its provocations while assuring opportunities and assistance if it chooses to become a responsible member of the international community."

"But if the North pours cold water, it will affect our approach," she added. "Even if it conducts fourth and fifth nuclear tests, they will do nothing to boost its bargaining position."

Also on Wednesday, South Korea's Defense Ministry said that North Korea's growing missile and nuclear threats compelled it to accelerate the building of new ballistic missiles capable of reaching all of North Korea.

Last fall, the United States agreed to allow South Korea to extend the range of its ballistic missiles up to 500 miles, enough to reach any target in North Korea.

The North's nuclear detonation also added urgency to the "Korea Air and Missile Defense" system, which South Korea plans to build to guard itself from North Korea's short-range ballistic missiles, said Kim Min-seok, a ministry spokesman, during a media briefing on Wednesday.

Mr. Kim said South Korea had "doubts" about the North's claim to have successfully tested a "miniaturized and lighter" atomic bomb that could theoretically be used atop missiles. North Korea still needed more time to reach that goal, he said.

Ships, airborne sensors and ground-based monitors from North Korea's neighbors tried on Wednesday to collect air samples that may give them answers to questions surrounding the North Korean blast. A key question is whether the device detonated used some of the North's limited stockpile of plutonium or was a uranium bomb, which would be proof that the country has acquired a second, and more accessible, source of nuclear bomb-making materials.

Mr. Kim, the ministry spokesman, said no telltale air samples had been collected as of Wednesday.

Experts say it takes two to four days for radioactive gases to leak out from an underground nuclear test. By then, they are harder to detect. Wrong wind directions can also hamper the efforts by Washington and its allies to collect air samples. In its 2009 test, North Korea plugged its underground testing tunnel so tightly that no radioactive gas escaped.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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