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North Korea this morning carried out a successful underground test of a nuclear weapon, news agencies report.

The detonation came less than a week after the Pyongyang regime promised to "in the future conduct a nuclear test under the condition where safety is firmly guaranteed".

The country's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) described the test - carried out under a mountain in north-eastern Hamgyong province on the day after the ninth anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's ascent to power - as "a stirring time when all the people of the country are making a great leap forward in the building of a great prosperous powerful socialist nation".

KCNA continued: "It marks a historic event as it greatly encouraged and pleased the...people that have wished to have powerful self-reliant defense capability. It will contribute to defending the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the area around it."

The US Geological Survey confirmed a seismic event in North Korea at the time of the detonation, although a South Korean expert is quoted by AP as claiming the blast was equivalent to "the force of 550 tons of TNT or a relatively small bomb".*

International reaction to the news was swift. Tony Blair slammed the test as a "completely irresponsible act", while Japan described it as "unpardonable". China played host to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe over the weekend, and the new-found entente cordiale between the former enemies comes at a time of mounting Chinese hostility to North Korea's weapons programmes.

The US, meanwhile, has painted itself into a corner with its sabre-rattling. The country's chief negotiator at the stalled six-nations talks aimed at resolving the North Korea nuclear issue, Christopher Hill, last week warned North Korea it had reached "a very important fork in the road" and that "it can have a future or it can have these weapons, but it cannot have them both".

He added: "I am not prepared at this point to say what we are going to do, but I am prepared to say we are not going to wait for a nuclear North Korea, we are not going to accept it."

Whatever form the US's non-acceptance of a nuclear North Korea takes, it's worth noting that the Communist regime's nuclear weapons programme does not pose an immediate serious threat to its neighbours. According to the Economist, in the short-term "North Korea's nuclear capabilities are more likely to pose a greater risk to North Koreans than to the neighbours".

It describes the bombs as "fairly crude" and requiring conventional explosive detonation of the device. Accordingly, they're "not easily transportable" and would require "unusual means of delivery, such as a shipping container" were North Korea to use them in anger. It concludes that "the immediate threats from North Korea's new capability come from radioactive leaks into the atmosphere and North Korea's groundwater". ®

Bootnote

*Russia estimates "it was between five and 15 kilotons", the BBC reports.

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