What is North Korea thinking?

In vowing to restart its nuclear-weapons program, the pariah nation could be trying to win concessions from the US or it could be setting out a new strategy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Obama administration demanded Tuesday that North Korea "cease its provocative threats" towards the international community – in particular its fresh vow to restart its nuclear programs. The response suggests that, so far, the White House is assuming that the pariah country is still interested in its standing with the international community.

Pyongyang is threatening to kick out international inspectors and fire up its shuttered nuclear facilities in protest against a UN Security Council statement Sunday that condemned its recent missile launch. The threat is seen by many experts as being in the same vein as the numerous tantrums the isolated North Korean regime has thrown in recent years. This one could be testing the US to see what gains can be eked out of the new administration.

Yet some longtime Korea analysts believe something different may be going on this time. The swiftness and comprehensiveness of North Korea's response to a relatively soft UN reprimand suggests a new strategy may be taking hold in Pyongyang – perhaps one embracing even greater isolation.

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"We have to ask: Do they have a different objective now? Do they truly want to walk away from the commitment to give up nuclear weapons and a goal of achieving better relations with the US?" asks Jim Walsh, a North Korea expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The Security Council statement is a step down from a resolution, and it was devoid of any tough new sanctions against North Korea for its missile launch on April 5. Yet it was barely issued before Pyongyang announced it would respond by walking away from the six-party talks hosted by China and attended by South Korea, Russia, and the United Nations, which have been the main forum for US-North Korea contacts. The talks resulted in North Korea's 2007 agreement to give up its nuclear-weapons programs.

In addition, Pyongyang says it has ordered inspectors from the UN's nuclear watchdog out of the country and will move quickly to reactivate its nuclear facilities.

Pyongyang is widely assumed to act principally with the response it will get from the US in mind. What North Korea is really up to, some experts say, is testing a new American president who has emphasized dialogue with adversaries, in particular Iran. "They want to wring additional incentives out of the US, so the big question now is: What will Obama do?" says Bruce Klingner, a northeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

But that assumption underestimates the importance of domestic issues and power struggles, especially with reclusive dictator Kim Jong Il potentially weakened by illness, Mr. Walsh says. "There's a possibility we can't ignore: that this is about the military and a leadership struggle inside the country," he adds. "Maybe things have changed in Pyongyang."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that North Korea would not find acceptance from the international community "unless it verifiably abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons." Calling the North's decision to walk away from talks with world powers on ending its nuclear programs "a serious step in the wrong direction," Mr. Gibbs termed Pyongyang's recent actions "provocative threats."

But if the scenario has changed in Pyongyang, even its principal partner to this point, China, may count for less as North Korea's leaders sort out their pecking order.

The potentially worrisome consequences of a return to self-isolation for North Korea are numerous – beginning with the political impact it could have in neighboring countries, including Japan. "It would strengthen Japan's right wing," says Walsh.

But what the international community does now will matter in determining North Korea's future actions, says Mr. Klingner of the Heritage Foundation. "North Korea has never been punished for belligerent behavior, and to continue that pattern now would only confirm for them what they can get away with," he says.

No one should be surprised if Pyongyang follows its statements with a flurry of activity around its nuclear facilities, in particular its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. How the US deals with that, Klingner adds, will be the greater test of a US administration that has yet to establish a clear approach to the troublesome regime.

"From the North Korea point of view," Klingner says, "it makes perfect sense to raise the tensions with a new president and see how things play out."

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