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A Cloud That May Be 'Just a Cloud'

Seoul says North Korea doesn't appear to have carried out a nuclear test despite suspicions.

September 18, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — Was that a mushroom cloud that the satellite saw hovering menacingly over North Korea or merely a patch of bad weather?

Trying to end one of the more bizarre episodes in the standoff over North Korea's nuclear program, South Korea's deputy unification minister, Rhee Bong Jo, said Friday that "a closer inspection of the cloud suggests that it was a natural phenomenon."

The cloud -- as well as an unexplained tremor measuring about magnitude 2.6 -- was detected Sept. 9, a holiday marking the communist nation's founding. The coincidence of the phenomena on such a symbolic date fueled a flurry of speculation about a nuclear test.

The South Koreans say the tremor appears to have come from the area around Mt. Paekdu, a dormant volcano straddling the Chinese border, and probably was a natural movement, unrelated to the cloud, spotted about 60 miles away over Kim Hyong Jik County.

Making matters more confusing, the North Koreans have offered a different explanation: The tremor was caused by a series of explosions to level a mountainside as part of a construction project for a hydroelectric dam.

A delegation of European diplomats was taken Thursday to the construction site in the North Korean town of Samsu and allowed to take photographs and samples. South Korean officials say the hydroelectric project is too far from where the tremor or cloud was detected to be related, but the diplomats appear to think otherwise.

"One thing is entirely clear: This was not a nuclear explosion that happened at this site," Sweden's ambassador to North Korea, Paul Beijer, told Associated Press by phone from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. "This is a site where thousands of people are working on dam building."

Bush administration officials have suggested that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il might pull an "October surprise" and test a nuclear weapon in the coming weeks in an effort to influence the U.S. presidential election.

"It would obviously not be smart for the North Koreans to test," national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," after reports of the explosion. "The North Koreans would only succeed in isolating themselves further if they're somehow trying to gain negotiating leverage or their own October surprise."

Many analysts argue that a nuclear test is unlikely at this time.

"There is a lot of fear-mongering going on about North Korea right now, but I think the probability of a test is very low," said Daniel Pinkston of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

"It would make no sense for them in terms of their strategy, and the North Koreans are not stupid. If they tested, they would only confirm what the U.S. already believes -- that they have nuclear weapons -- and they would use their small stock of fissile material."

Diplomats here believe, however, that the misleading report of a mysterious explosion is more likely an honest error on the part of South Korean intelligence.

"I'd apply the old rule of thumb -- if you are trying to decide whether something is a [mix-up] or a conspiracy, 90% of the time it is" a mix-up, said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity.

The diplomat, who has seen the disputed satellite image of the cloud, said that if viewed in a tight frame "it might look a little odd, perhaps like a mushroom cloud, but if you look at the larger photo and the other clouds over Korea, it really looks, well, like just a cloud."

For its part, North Korea has accused South Korea of spreading the rumor of a nuclear test to distract from its own woes. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, is investigating allegations that South Korean scientists have violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty since the early 1980s.

A team of inspectors will leave for South Korea today. South Korea on Friday again insisted that officials had no knowledge of the nuclear experiments that were isolated research activities and not part of a weapons program.

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