2006-08-19,7:33 PM

Bush warns North Korea on possible nuclear test

By Tabassum Zakaria

CAMP DAVID, Md (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Friday warned that North Korea would pose a threat to the world if it tested a nuclear bomb for the first time, following reports that the reclusive government was considering such a move.

Bush also pressed participants in six-party talks to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons program, while a senior U.S. official played down the chances of an early nuclear test.

President Bush speaks to reporters after his annual meeting with his top economic advisors at Camp David, Maryland, August 18, 2006. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
"If North Korea were to conduct a test, it's just a constant reminder for people in the neighborhood, in particular, that North Korea poses a threat," Bush said at the Camp David presidential retreat. "We expect our friends and those sitting around the table with us to act in such a manner as to help rid the world of the threat."

ABC News on Thursday reported that a U.S. intelligence agency had observed suspicious vehicle movement at a suspected North Korean test site. It quoted an unidentified senior State Department official saying a test was a "real possibility."

Bush refused to confirm or deny the report, saying he would not talk about intelligence information. State Department spokesman Tom Casey declined to comment.

South Korea's point man for the North said he was skeptical of the reports and U.S. officials have said they had no new evidence of such a plan.

"There was a lot less to that report than meets the eye," said one senior U.S. official.

Analysts said North Korea could be trying an extreme form of saber-rattling to force the international community, and Washington in particular, into making concessions to the poor and isolated state.

North Korea lashed out at the United States on Friday for holding annual joint military drills with South Korea next week, saying the drills are "driving the situation of the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a war."

The July 5 missile tests conducted by North Korea were widely seen as a repeat of the North Korean government's often-used tactic to grab international attention but whose key aim -- to win direct talks with the United States -- failed.

"Many of the experts ... have been concerned about the possible options on the part of North Korea, including nuclear tests or other forms of military provocation," said Kim Sung-han, head of North American studies at South Korea's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

Pyongyang has accused Washington of trying to topple its government with a crackdown on its finances and has demanded an end to that effort before returning to international talks on its nuclear-weapons program.

Analysts say the crackdown is causing North Korea's leadership difficulties, but the United States has refused to budge or hold direct talks with North Korea outside the six-country nuclear negotiations.

The talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States have been stalled since November.

"It'll be a nightmare for China if it happens. It'll mean efforts at six-party talks in the past three years (amount to) nothing," Zhu Feng, director of the international security program at Peking University, said about a potential test.

Neighboring China is the North's main benefactor. Officials in Japan and China would not comment on the report.

North Korea has been working on nuclear weapons for years and declared itself a nuclear-weapons power in February 2005 without testing.

It probably has the technology to build a bomb and enough fissile material for at least six to eight nuclear weapons, proliferation experts have said. But they say no one knows for sure whether it has actually built a nuclear weapon.

Last year, activity at suspected North Korean test sites led some analysts to believe the secretive state was preparing to test a nuclear device, but nothing happened.

(With additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz and Jack Kim in Seoul, Paul Eckert and Sue Pleming in Washington, and Benjamin Kang Lim in Beijing)


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