SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea warned Wednesday it will fire an intercontinental ballistic missile — or even carry out another nuclear test — unless the U.N. apologizes for condemning the regime's April 5 rocket launch.
By flaunting its rogue nuclear and missile programs, Pyongyang has raised the stakes in the escalating diplomatic tit for tat with the outside world. North Korea also said it would start generating nuclear fuel — an indication the regime will begin enriching uranium, another material used to make an atomic bomb.
North Korea is known for its use of brinksmanship and harsh rhetoric to force the West to react, but the threat of a nuclear test is significant.
Pyongyang conducted its first atomic test in 2006, and is thought to have enough plutonium to make at least half a dozen nuclear bombs. There are no indications, however, that scientists in the North have mastered the technology needed to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit onto a missile.
Still, North Korea's April 5 rocket launch drew widespread international concern. Pyongyang claims the liftoff was a peaceful bid to send a communications satellite into space, but the U.S., Japan and others saw it as a furtive test of a delivery system capable of sending a long-range missile within striking range of Alaska.
The U.N. Council denounced the launch as a violation of 2006 resolutions barring the North from missile-related activity, and later imposed new sanctions on three North Korean firms.
Within hours of the sanctions, the North claimed it had begun reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods at its Yongbyon nuclear complex to harvest weapons-grade plutonium — a clear setback to years of negotiations on disarming the communist country.
The Security Council must apologize for infringing on the North's sovereignty and "withdraw all its unreasonable and discriminative resolutions and decisions" against the North, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Otherwise, the regime "will be compelled to take additional self-defensive measures," including "nuclear tests and test-firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles," the ministry said.
The U.S. criticized North Korea's latest maneuver.
"Let me just say very clearly that these threats only further isolate the North," said U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood. "We again call on the North Koreans to come back to the (negotiating) table ... We've heard these types of threats before."
South Korea's Foreign Ministry expressed "serious concerns" about the warnings, and criticized Pyongyang for challenging the international community.
"We make it clear that the international responsibility for worsening the situation will be entirely on North Korea," the ministry said in a statement.
Prof. Kim Yong-hyun at Seoul's Dongguk University called the North's threat rhetoric designed to trigger a response from the Obama administration, which has yet to fully reveal its North Korea policy.
"The North is trying to maximize the stakes as the United States keeps ignoring it," he said. But the expert also said the regime could gradually put the threat into action if Washington fails to respond as it wishes.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said the North appears to have begun preparations for nuclear and missile tests, noting its "unrealistic, unprecedented" demand: a U.N. apology.
He said North Korea's statement Wednesday that it will begin building a light-water reactor — another way of producing fuel — undoubtedly means Pyongyang will begin enriching uranium, a material used to make atomic bombs.
Yang said Pyongyang is angling for direct talks with Washington, with which it currently has no diplomatic relations. He said that offer would convince the North to withdraw its nuclear and missile threats.
The current nuclear standoff flared in late 2002 after Washington raised allegations that Pyongyang had a clandestine nuclear program based on enriched uranium in addition to a separate one based on plutonium. The North has strongly denied the allegations.
Since 2003, five nations — China, Japan, South Korea Russia and the U.S. — have been negotiating with North Korea on a disarmament-for-aid deal.
Months after its 2006 nuclear test, North Korea agreed in February 2007 to disable its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon north of Pyongyang in return for 1 million tons of fuel oil and other concessions. Disablement began in November of that year.
By June 2008, North Korea had completed eight of 11 steps toward disablement, and blew up the Yongbyon cooling tower in a dramatic show of its commitment to denuclearization.
But the process came to halt weeks later as Pyongyang wrangled with Washington over how to verify its past atomic activities. The latest round of talks, in December, failed to push the process forward.
North Korea formally walked away from the talks after the Security Council condemnation of its rocket launch.