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North Korea’s announcement that it went ahead with a nuclear-weapons test Monday appeared timed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s summit with South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun — a day after his summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Pyongyang took the action in defiance of the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous warning that such an action could lead to severe consequences. The underground test in the northeastern part of the country blatantly jeopardizes peace, stability and security in the region and beyond.

The test cannot be treated separately from the North’s July 5 test-firing of seven ballistic missiles. It is highly deplorable because it could accelerate the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery, which would pose a serious threat to international peace and stability. Other nations in this and other regions may not move immediately to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, but the possibility cannot be ruled out that North Korea’s demonstration of its nuclear capability will tempt other nations to eventually go nuclear. A world plagued by arms races would only see greater instability. Thus North Korea should be censured for its extremely irresponsible act.

The nuclear-weapons test is a culmination of North Korea’s attempt over many years to develop and possess nuclear weapons. In March 1993, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In October 1994, North Korea and the United States signed the “Agreed Framework” under which North Korea would freeze plutonium production in exchange for receiving fuel oil and two light-water nuclear-power stations. In August 1998, the North launched a Taepodong-1 missile, which flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific Ocean.

In October 2002, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly accused North Korea of operating a secrete uranium-enrichment program. Later that month, the United States announced that the North had admitted to the existence of a secret nuclear-arms program. In December that year, North Korea threatened to reactivate its nuclear facilities, and then kicked out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In January 2003, the North announced its withdrawal from the NPT. In August that year, the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea, met in Beijing to begin the “six-party talks” on the North’s nuclear-weapons development program. In February 2005, North Korea announced that it possessed nuclear weapons. In May 2005, the North announced it had completed the extraction of spent nuclear-fuel rods from a graphite-moderated nuclear reactor in Yongbyon to beef up its nuclear arsenal.

In September that year, the six-party talks produced an agreement under which the North agreed to give up its nuclear-weapons development program in exchange for aid and a U.S. promise not to attack or invade North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons.

Although the September 2005 agreement appeared to help solve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development program, the North behaved without sincerity, dashing hopes for the solution. Since November 2005, the North has refused to return to the six-party talks, protesting U.S. sanctions imposed against it for its alleged counterfeiting of U.S. dollars and money-laundering.

North Korea apparently wanted to use its Oct. 3 announcement of a planned nuclear-weapons test as a bargaining tool to start direct talks with the U.S. But now that it has conducted the test, the bargaining tool is not likely to work any longer. North Korea has deepened its isolation through its own action, as the UNSC presidential statement said that a nuclear test would bring universal condemnation. The statement concluded that if the North ignores the calls of the international community, “the Security Council will act consistent with its primary responsibility under the Charter of the United Nations.”

The Security Council might adopt a binding resolution based on Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which provides for international economic sanctions as well as military options under the world body. North Korea may have miscalculated. China, North Korea’s biggest supplier of food and energy aid, denounced the nuclear-weapons test as “brazen” and may have no alternative but to take a hard stance toward the North. South Korea may be forced to terminate its rapprochement with the North.

Unity among the U.N. member nations, especially among the permanent members of the Security Council, is indispensable to changing the course of North Korea. But a coolheaded approach is needed to prevent further reckless action by the North.

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