North Korea vowed Tuesday to play what some experts agree is its final card in its campaign to possess nuclear weapons, by testing a nuclear device. Pyongyang's defiance of international efforts to end its nuclear weapons program prompted quick condemnation by Japan and led South Korea to hold an emergency security meeting.
A North Korean announcer says Pyongyang will "in the future conduct a nuclear test in a condition where safety is firmly guaranteed." He does not specify when.
North Korea has said it has nuclear weapons but has never tested a nuclear explosion. U.S. government experts say Pyongyang has at least one or two nuclear bombs.
In its statement Tuesday, the North blamed what it calls the "U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure" for its decision. Washington says it has no intention of attacking Pyongyang, and has worked for three years with China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan to persuade North Korea to end its nuclear programs.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe quickly condemned the North's threat.
Mr. Abe says a North Korean nuclear test would be unforgivable. He said North Korea would face further decline if it did not end its nuclear weapons programs.
The South Korean government called an immediate security meeting Tuesday evening and planned to hold a longer one Wednesday to build its response to the North Korean threat. In addition, Seoul raised the security alert throughout the country.
Britain said a North Korean nuclear test would be provocative and would raise tensions in the region. The Foreign Office said a test would have serious consequences for Pyongyang.
Peter Beck, North Asia director for the International Crisis Group research organization, says the North Korean threat should to be taken seriously.
"They haven't made a statement like this before, and it appears to be a declaration that they're committed to a nuclear breakout," Beck says. "It may very well mean the death of the six-party talks."
The announcement comes days after South Korea and the United States indicated renewed flexibility in coaxing North Korea back to the six-nation nuclear talks. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said Seoul and Washington were committed to a "broad and common" approach to the issue, possibly entailing billions of dollars of investment in the impoverished North. U.S. officials held out the possibility of bilateral talks with Pyongyang.
The United States has warned a test would have serious consequences, possibly in the form of action through the United Nations Security Council.
Some regional political analysts think North Korea may be using the threat of a nuclear test to push Washington to lift financial sanctions imposed on several North Korean enterprises. The U.S. says the sanctions concern alleged money laundering and counterfeiting and are unrelated to the nuclear issue.
Nonetheless, there is evidence the sanctions are making it harder for North Korea to move money into the country and may be worsening the country's economic problems.
Beck, with the International Crisis Group, says the North's statement creates pressure for China - Pyongyang's ally and main benefactor.
"At this point, the only thing that's really standing between Pyongyang and a nuclear test is Beijing," Beck says. "It's going to come down to whether Beijing is willing to cut off fuel oil shipments and some of the assistance they're providing."
Many regional experts say China wants to prevent North Korea from sparking a regional nuclear arms race. More broadly, they warn a North Korean nuclear breakout would create incentives for small nations around the globe to pursue nuclear arms.
The North Korean statement says despite plans for a test, Pyongyang is committed to eventually denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. It promises that North Korea will not transfer or make first use of its nuclear weapons.