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With second test, North Korea asserts nuclear-power ambitions

Monday's explosion dashed hopes that the secretive nation is simply building its weapons program as a bargaining chip.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 2009

President Obama condemned North Korea's nuclear test Monday and said the international community would need to respond.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters



North Korea's nuclear test Monday appears to have dashed hopes on both sides of the Pacific that Pyongyang was using its nuclear program as a bargaining chip with which to negotiate an end to its pariah status. Rather, diplomatic observers warn, North Korea's second test hardens suspicions that it intends to join the nuclear club permanently.

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The brazen challenge, just weeks after the United Nations condemned a missile test, also illustrates how little effect international efforts have had in thwarting North Korea's intentions.

"It is looking more and more as if the nuclear program is something they intend to keep and they are not ready to bargain it away," says Denny Roy, a North Korea expert at the East-West Institute in Hawaii.

"We used to believe that North Korea was simply playing the nuclear card," adds Cai Jian, deputy head of the North Korea Research Institute at Shanghai's Fudan University. "Now we think it is a strategic choice."

North Korea exploded what the Russian military estimated to be a 10-20 kiloton nuclear device, significantly larger than its first test in October 2006 and comparable to the US bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The test was "aimed at strengthening its self defense nuclear deterrent in every way," Pyongyang's official KCNA news agency announced.

A few hours later, the North Koreans launched what appeared to be a short range surface-to-air missile.

Test may be fallout of a succession struggle

South Korean analysts were shocked more by the timing of the test than by the explosion itself, surprised by the speed which Pyongyang had organized it.

"What is frightening a lot of people is the tempo at which North Korea is escalating," says Brian Myers, a professor at Dongseo University in Pusan, South Korea.

Domestic politics, rather than international factors, seem to be driving Pyongyang's behavior, a number of analysts suggest, even though North Korea said last month it was so angry at the UN condemnation of its April 5 missile test that it would resume nuclear activities and withdraw from six-nation talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

Though outside observers caution that they have no way of knowing what is happening inside the secretive North Korean government as its leader, Kim Jong Il, believed to be battling ill health, two theories have emerged.

It is possible, says David Kang, a North Korea expert at the University of Southern California, that the test is a move by one faction "to show who is most loyal to Kim Jong Il."