Unusually high levels of radiation were detected close to the North Korean border in May not long after Pyongyang declared that it had successfully created a nuclear fusion reaction, the South Korean Science Ministry announced today (see GSN, June 17).
The South said it had not been able to figure out what caused the abnormal radiation levels, though the ministry said it was not caused by an underground nuclear explosion which is always followed by a strong, artificial earthquake. There were no signs that one had occurred, the Associated Press reported.
In mid-May, Pyongyang asserted that it had achieved the remarkable feat of producing a nuclear fusion reaction -- a process that is required to build a hydrogen warhead. That claim was widely dismissed by foreign nuclear scientists based on the North's limited resources and expertise to accomplish such a feat (see GSN, May 12).
On May 15, three days after the North made its fusion announcement, xenon atmospheric levels eight times greater than normal were detected on South Korean territory not far from the border with the North, the Science Ministry said. Xenon gas is released following a nuclear detonation or radioactive leakage from an atomic energy plant. It is not dangerous.
Because no earthquake evidence in the North was found by experts, "we determined that there was no possibility of an underground nuclear test," the Science Ministry said.
A fusion reaction needs to be carried out at very intense pressure and temperature levels inside a nuclear reactor. These conditions are fostered by exploding a uranium-based bomb, South Korean nuclear expert Whang Joo-ho said.
Pyongyang carried out two underground nuclear weapons tests in 2006 and 2009.
An anonymous Science Ministry official said the xenon might have been blown in from China or Russia. He said there was no chance that the gas could have come from leakage at one of the South 's atomic energy sites.
The U.N. Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, which searches for indications of nuclear tests across the world, said it had not detected anything that would cause suspicion by the inter-Korean border (Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, June 21).
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration said Friday that it was weighing levying unilateral financial sanctions on the aspiring nuclear power for the March attack on a South Korean warship, Kyodo News reported.
The U.N. Security Council is also considering a Seoul request to rebuke or punish Pyongyang for the torpedo strike against the Cheonan. The North has denied all responsibility for the incident. South Korea has Washington's strong backing on the issue. However, China, a permanent Security Council member, is believed to oppose a harsh U.N. response for the Cheonan incident.
"In light of the sinking of the Cheonan, we're reviewing a range of options as to how we can deliver a message to North Korea,'' U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
''We have been able to use financial steps to apply pressure on North Korea before, and we're always looking for ways in which we can influence North Korea's behavior,'' he said.
Pyongyang has been under heightened U.N. Security Council sanctions for some time now as a result of its missile and nuclear activities. The sanctions have left the already impoverished nation greatly weakened.
Crowley said U.S. envoy for Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell had met with officials from South Korea and Japan recently to discuss new financial penalties against the North.
"We consult closely with allies on these subjects all the time," Crowley said, indicating that Seoul, Tokyo and Washington would be likely to collaborate on additional sanctions targeting the North (Kyodo News/Newsystocks.com, June 18).
No less than three Asian financial institutions, including one Chinese bank, are being considered by the United States for sanctions, a Washington government source said, according to the Korea Herald.
The reserves that the North Korean regime has deposited in the financial institutions are thought to be greater than the $25 million deposited in the Banco Delta Asia, which was sanctioned by Washington in 2005 for allegedly aiding a Pyongyang money-laundering scheme, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported (Song Sang-ho, Korea Herald, June 20).
Elsewhere, Obama officials are divided over whether to dispatch the USS George Washington aircraft carrier to participate in a maritime drill with the South near the scene of the Cheonan sinking as a demonstration of allied might to North Korea, the Washington Post reported Saturday.
Some in the Obama administration are concerned that the presence of the enormous aircraft carrier would irritate Beijing or lead to fresh hostile actions from the North. Others are arguing that its presence in the Yellow Sea would strongly demonstrate Washington's staunch loyalty to South Korea.
"It's a very tough call," former State Department official Susan Shirk said. "You don't want to be too proactive. But you need to send a clear message."
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said a decision had not been reached on the matter.
"I think it's a question of the U.S. and South Korea working out what we want to do together and when we want to do it," a high-level Obama official said. He said China would be apprised as to what Washington decides (John Pomfret, Washington Post, June 19).