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Emboldened North Korea pushes neighbors to seek self-defense

South Korea joined a US-led program to block shipments of nuclear material. In Japan, a lawmaker urged first-strike capability.

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"The US and other countries don't have a wide array of options" when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang, adds Dr. Paik. "Possibly they have just one: to go back to the negotiating table," since sanctions have so far proved ineffectual.

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That is China's position, too; Beijing called Monday for a resumption of the sporadic six-party talks it has been hosting that are aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang, however, declared last month that it would never return to those talks.

"It is beyond China's capability to get rid of North Korea's nuclear program, and it is beyond the six-party talks' capability, too," argues Yan Xuetong, head of Tsinghua University's International Affairs school in Beijing.

Though Beijing is likely to make renewed efforts to kickstart the talks, "I cannot predict that they will be successful," says Professor Yan.

The Chinese government, however, "still thinks there is room and time for dealing," he adds. North Korea's bid to develop nuclear missiles "is not seen as such an urgent issue that it needs dealing with tomorrow."

That does not accord with the mood in South Korea.

"Most people here believe the talks are gone, moribund," says Yonsei's Professor Han. Monday's test, he believes, means that "the government cannot run any conciliatory policy toward North Korea," even if it had wanted to.

"We are open to continued talks, but if they [the North Koreans] don't want to talk, there is nothing we can do," Han adds. "The talk now is of how to defend ourselves against potential aggression. We could be the biggest victims ... and we have no option but to defend ourselves."

Similar sentiments could be heard Tuesday in Tokyo.

"At the moment Japan cannot take any initiative. Japan cannot act on its own," says Toshiyuki Shikata, a law professor at Teikyo University and a former general in Japan's Self Defense Forces.

"So we should certainly consider active missile defenses ... attacking enemy bases," he argues. "And Japan should be building up its military strength more quickly."

Nervous despite US security umbrella

Possibly in anticipation of such reactions, US President Barack Obama pledged to defend Japan and South Korea when he called their leaders Tuesday, apparently hoping to reassure their publics that they are secure beneath the US security umbrella.

Certainly, both countries would find it expensive and time-consuming to develop their own nuclear weapons. They would also alienate the US, committed not only to nuclear nonproliferation but to the vision of a nuclear-free world that Mr. Obama proclaimed during his recent visit to Europe.

Nonetheless, warns Han, "I think there is a greater likelihood of a move toward more radical confrontation than of conciliation at this moment" between the two Koreas.

Takehiko Kambayashi contributed to this story from Tokyo.