South Korea warned yesterday against backing North Korea into a corner while seeking to stop its nuclear weapons aspirations, after a new media report suggested it may be moving toward testing an atomic bomb.
"We need to exhibit resolve in denouncing North Korea's bad behavior whilst having the wisdom not to corner North Korea into a dead end with no way out," Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told foreign correspondents in Seoul.
Still, he acknowledged a possible nuclear test would call for a tough response.
"If North Korea forges ahead with a possible nuclear test, it will have far more serious repercussions than the recent missile launches," Ban said, declining to give specifics.
The North stoked regional tensions last month by test-firing seven missiles, drawing UN Security Council sanctions, and concerns are growing that it could be preparing for a nuclear test.
Japan's Kyodo News agency reported late on Thursday that vehicles were seen in recent days at what is thought to be a nuclear testing site in northeastern North Korea. That followed a US television report last week of other suspicious activity at a possible test site.
The Japanese government's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, declined yesterday to confirm the report, saying he could not comment on what Japan knows for intelligence reasons, but urged North Korea to return to stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear disarmament.
"If North Korea does carry out its nuclear experiment, it will pose a grave threat to the peace and security of Japan, Northeast Asia, and the international community," Abe said in Tokyo. "It will be absolutely unacceptable."
Japan's Foreign Ministry said that Tokyo had boosted surveillance of the area, but defense officials also refused to comment on the Kyodo report.
Ban also said South Korea is "closely monitoring North Korea's movements" in cooperation with the US and other countries.
Meanwhile, South Korea's defense minister said yesterday that North Korea is believed to have one or two nuclear weapons.
The comments by Yoon Kwang-ung to a parliamentary meeting were seen as a change in South Korea's assessment of the North's nuclear forces, with Seoul previously saying only that the North had the "capability" to build one or two nuclear weapons.
The North has said it won't return to international nuclear talks until a Macau bank where it held accounts is removed from a US blacklist, which would free the regime's money now frozen by the bank.
The US argues the issue is separate from the nuclear talks, but that it could discuss that and other concerns if the North returns to the six-nation negotiations, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
Ban said yesterday the South Korean government "is in close consultation with all the other parties at the six-party talks, including the United States, to find a flexible and creative way out of the current stalemate situation."
However, the North's missile tests have caused a "significant deterioration in the prospects for the resumption" of the nuclear talks, he said.