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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."