by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
September 12, 2004
POSSIBLE A-TEST REPORTED IN NORTH KOREA
BRADENTON, Fla., Sept. 12, 2004 (5:20am EDT) -- Amid reports by the South Korean news agency Yonhap that a large "mushroom cloud" as much as 2.5 miles in diameter was seen near a northern military base in North Korea on Sept. 9, The Associated Press is reporting this morning that a vast explosion occurred at 11 a.m. Thursday in that nation's Yanggang province.
Meanwhile, the New York Times in an exclusive report this morning says U.S. spy satellites have spotted alarming signs of preparation for a nuclear weapons test in North Korea.
While there is no confirmation yet of such a test, there is concern that North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon on its own soil on the occasion of the 56th anniversary of its founding in 1948.
[Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday morning, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told host Tim Russert that the blast was probably not a nuclear event, but that its true nature has yet to be determined.]
The Yonhap agency actually carried two reports, with one citing a possible natural cause for the blast and another citing a South Korean diplomatic source "as raising the possibility of an accident or a nuclear test."
A 2.20 a.m. update from the A.P. that was carried on the MSNBC Web site said "A large explosion occurred in the northern part of North Korea, sending a huge column of smoke into the air on an important anniversary of the communist regime, a South Korean news agency reported."
The diplomatic source told Yonhap, "We understand that a mushroom-chaped cloud about 3.5 to 4 kilometers (2.2 to 2.5 miles) in diameter was monitored during the explosion."
U.S. officials reacted to the report with caution. "We watch everything in North Korea very closely. At this point, we don't have any definitive information to report. There are a variety of possible explanations. What this is is not clear," a State Department official told Reuters.
The site of the explosion was near Yongjori Missile Base close to the Chinese border, where officials of the Nuclear Threat Initiative funded by CNN founder Ted Turner say a nuclear enrichment program may be concealed. The base houses a large underground missile firing range stocked with North Korea's Taepo-dong ballistic missiles.
In its lead story on the New York Times Cybertimes Website this morning, the paper reports from Washington Saturday that "President Bush and his top advisors have received intelligence reports in recent days describing a series of actions by North Korea that some experts believe could indicate that the country is preparing to conduct its first test explosion of a nuclear weapon, according to senior officials with access to the intelligence."
The Times report suggests that reprocessed plutonium harvested from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods may have been the source of the fuel that would be used in a North Korean nuclear weapon.
Critics of the Bush administration have said repeatedly that the administration's efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein came at the cost of ignoring developments in North Korea's nuclear arms program. Iran is also reportedly close to having the capacity to assemble a nuclear weapon.
The New York Times report would suggest the administration did not know of the apparent Sept. 9 blast, or was trying to prepare the general public for the news.