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Neighbors prep militaries after NKorean nuke test

Wednesday - 2/13/2013, 7:03am  ET

A man looks through the wire fence covered with ribbons carrying messages of people's wish for the reunification of the two Koreas at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, in Paju, north of Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Defying U.N. warnings, North Korea on Tuesday conducted its third nuclear test in the remote, snowy northeast, taking a crucial step toward its goal of building a bomb small enough to be fitted on a missile capable of striking the United States. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

HYUNG-JIN KIM
Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korea's neighbors bolstered their military preparations and mobilized scientists Wednesday to determine whether Pyongyang's third nuclear test, conducted in defiance of U.N. warnings, was as successful as the North claimed.

The detonation was also the focus of global diplomatic maneuvers, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reaching out to counterparts in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to assure U.S. allies in the region and leveled a warning of "firm action."

"The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations," Obama said. "Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats."

North Korea's third nuclear test, detonated Tuesday at a remote underground site in the northeast, was a crucial step toward its goal of building a bomb small enough to be fitted on a missile capable of striking the United States. But just what happened in the test is still unknown to outsiders.

North Korea said the atomic test was merely its "first response" to what it called U.S. threats and will continue with unspecified "second and third measures of greater intensity" if Washington maintains its hostility.

South Korea on Wednesday used aircraft and ships, as well specialists on the ground, to collect air samples to analyze possibly increased radiation from the test, according to Seoul's Defense Ministry. Japanese fighter jets were dispatched immediately after the test to collect atmospheric samples. Japan has also established monitoring posts, including one on its northwest coast, to collect similar data.

Underground nuclear tests often release radioactive elements into the atmosphere that can be analyzed to determine key details about the blast. One of the main points that intelligence officials want to know is whether the device was a plutonium bomb or one that used highly enriched uranium, which would be a first for North Korea.

In 2006 and 2009, North Korea is believed to have tested devices made of plutonium. But in 2010, Pyongyang revealed it was trying to enrich uranium, which would be a second source of nuclear bomb-making materials -- a worrying development for the United States and its allies.

Generally, it takes about two days for such radioactive byproducts from the North's test site to reach South Korea, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said Wednesday.

Both South Korea and the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization confirmed increased radiation levels following the North's 2006 nuclear test but didn't find anything in 2009. Experts in Seoul said the North plugged an underground testing tunnel in 2009 so tightly that no radioactive gas escaped.

The seismic event Tuesday was "roughly twice as big as what happened in 2009," Lassina Zerbo, head of CTBTO's international data center, said in a briefing. "The smoking gun will be the radio nuclides potentially released ... We cannot say anything about that before two or three days."

South Korea's Defense Ministry said Wednesday it has deployed cruise missiles with "world-class accuracy and destructive power" that are capable of hitting any target in North Korea at any time.

Tuesday's test, which set off powerful seismic waves that were measured using earthquake-detection sensors, drew immediate condemnation from Washington, the U.N. and others. Even North Korea's only major ally, China, summoned the North's ambassador for a dressing-down.

But the Obama administration's options for a response are limited, and a U.S. military strike is highly unlikely.

In an emergency session, the U.N. Security Council unanimously said the test poses "a clear threat to international peace and security" and pledged further action.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the North's continued work on its nuclear and missile programs threatens regional and international peace and "the security of a number of countries including the United States."

"They will not be tolerated," she said, "and they will be met with North Korea's increasing isolation and pressure under United Nations sanctions."

It remains to be seen, however, whether China will sign on to any new, binding global sanctions. Beijing, Pyongyang's primary trading partner, has resisted measures that would cut off North Korea's economy completely.

China expressed firm opposition to Tuesday's test but called for a calm response by all sides. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi summoned North Korea's ambassador and delivered a "stern representation" and demanded that North Korea "swiftly return to the correct channel of dialogue and negotiation," the ministry said in a statement.

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