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N. Korea vows nuclear test

Says rockets can hit US; financial sanctions grow

– North Korea’s plan to conduct a third nuclear test is “needlessly provocative” and will only increase its isolation, the White House said Thursday, as the U.S. expanded its financial sanctions against the north Asian country.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he’s seen no outward sign that North Korea will follow through soon on its plan to conduct a test – after its underground atomic explosions in 2006 and 2009. But that doesn’t mean preparations aren’t under way.

“They have the capability, frankly, to conduct these tests in a way that make it very difficult to determine whether or not they are doing it,” Panetta told reporters.

North Korea’s National Defense Commission said Thursday a nuclear test was part of “upcoming” action directed against the U.S. but did not say exactly when or where it would take place. The commission, led by leader Kim Jong Un, also made clear that its long-range rockets are designed to carry warheads aimed at striking the United States. The North has previously said its launches are for a peaceful space program.

Pyongyang’s statement came two days after the U.N. Security Council condemned its December launch of a satellite atop a long-range rocket for violating a ban on ballistic missile activity. The council, with the support of the North’s only major ally, China, also tightened sanctions.

“North Korea’s statement is needlessly provocative, and a test would be a significant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions,” White House spokesman Carney told reporters.

“Further provocation would only increase Pyongyang’s isolation, and its continued focus on its nuclear and missile program is doing nothing to help the North Korean people.”

Carney said the council decision to tighten sanctions would impede the growth of weapons of mass destruction programs in North Korea. And he noted the council’s warning to take further action in the event of a further launch or nuclear test.

North Korea claims the right to build nuclear weapons as a defense against the United States, its foe from the 1950-53 Korean War. The U.S. still maintains 28,000 troops in South Korea as a deterrent against aggression from the North.

North Korea’s recently launched rocket has the potential to hit the West Coast of the U.S. mainland, but experts say it still doesn’t have the capability to make a missile re-enter the atmosphere and hit a target. Nor is it believed to have miniaturized a nuclear device to mount on a missile. A nuclear test could move it closer toward that goal.

The elevation a year ago of Kim Jong Un after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, had fueled hope of improved relations with Washington, particularly after the North accepted a substantial offer of food aid in exchange for nuclear concessions.

But that agreement collapsed last April when the North conducted a long-range rocket launch.

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