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.
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Alternatively, suggests Dr. Roy, Kim Jong Il is seeking crucial support from the military for his youngest son – tipped as a possible successor – and that "part of securing military support involves letting them ... move quickly to consolidate the nuclear program."Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Kim may also hope that securing nuclear status for North Korea would draw Washington into bilateral talks. He "wants to be able to pass on a new relationship with the United States to his son, and that relationship is being recognized as a nuclear power," argues Ha Tae Keung, head of a radio station that beams news from Seoul into North Korea.
'An extremely thin band of options'
Whatever Pyongyang's motives, the nuclear test casts a heavy shadow over on-again, off-again six-party talks to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and an end to its diplomatic isolation.
"North Korea's first demand at any resumption of the six-party talks would be political recognition as a nuclear power," predicted Yan Xuetong, an international affairs expert at Beijing's Tsinghua University. If that were the case, "what will the six-party talks discuss if denuclearization is not a goal any more?"
"If they lower their goal from denuclearization to nonproliferation, their nature will have changed," Professor Yan added, in an online interview with Sina.com, a Chinese website.
US President Barack Obama reacted angrily to the test, which he said "warrants action by the international community." North Korea's efforts to develop a long-range missile and a nuclear warhead could potentially put Alaska within range of a nuclear attack.
The international community, however, has "an extremely thin band of options" in dealing with this threat, cautions Professor Kang, since Washington and other concerned capitals have made it clear they will not go to war over it.
"We are stuck with sanctions, pressure, rhetoric, and maybe some negotiations," Kang says.
From influential China, a mild rebuke
Sanctions, however, first imposed after Pyongyang's first nuclear test in 2006, have proven toothless, not least because neither Russia nor China has shown any enthusiasm for imposing them. Although Beijing said it was "resolutely opposed" to North Korea's test Monday, it issued only a mild rebuke, merely calling on the renegade nation to live up to its commitments.
China, North Korea's closest ally and the source of its fuel and much food, "is the only country in a position to really exercise tough and decisive pressure," says Roy. "But it is not inclined to do so because it fears the consequences of political instability in North Korea much more than the nuclear program."
"China faces a very difficult balancing act," says Professor Cai, "deciding how much pressure to put on North Korea without leading to a collapse" of the regime that could lead to chaos and to millions of refugees pouring across the border into China.
In the meantime, South Korean officials are bracing for possible incidents in the Yellow Sea – the scene of bloody battles between North and South Korean vessels in 1999 and 2002 – as Pyongyang seeks to show up Seoul's weakness.
• Donald Kirk contributed to this story from Washington.