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North Korea ratchets up nuclear defiance

For the first time, the rogue state has admitted to having a uranium-enrichment program. It also threatened to respond militarily to any attempts to stop any of its ships suspected of carrying nuclear components.

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Although North Korea has yet to build warheads with highly enriched uranium, Kim Tae Woo, senior researcher at the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses, says Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's atomic bomb, sold materiel and technology to North Korea for that purpose before Pakistan's role was revealed more than five years ago.

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"We already know of deals between Pakistan and North Korea," says Mr. Kim. "We can presume North Korea got the technology from Pakistan. They also got the centrifuges for uranium enrichment."

On Saturday, North Korea for the first time publicly revealed the existence of the uranium program – something that it had always denied.

US officials have long said that North Korea's vice-foreign minister, Kang Sok Ju, acknowledged the program in a meeting in Pyongyang in October 2002 with a team led by James Kelly, then US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, but Mr. Kang repeatedly charged that his words had been distorted.

It was that meeting that led to the breakdown of the 1994 Geneva agreement under which North Korea shut down its nuclear facilities. North Korea in 2007 again agreed, in six-party talks hosted by China, on a program for disabling and dismantling its nuclear program, but those agreements broke down early this year when the North refused to agree on verifying what it was doing to comply.

Tipping point: Boarding North Korean ships

Now, the question is whether the rhetoric of recent days will explode into open conflict. The tipping point, analysts say, will be any attempt to board a North Korean vessel anywhere near the Korean peninsula.

Although the UN Security Council resolution empowers countries to do just that, neither China nor Russia are expected to cooperate to that extent. Nor is South Korea likely to be enthusiastic about any action that would lead to war.

North Korea would probably not be able to act forcefully in case a vessel were stopped far from the Korean peninsula while transporting missiles to client states in the Middle East, but the odds of conflict would go up significantly in nearby waters.

"If anything happens near the Korean peninsula and if they have reason to believe South Korea is involved," says Kim Tae Woo, "they will make provocations." For that reason, he believes, "South Korea will have to be very careful."

China's role

One reason for North Korea's boldness is believed to be the reluctance of China – the source of most of the fuel, fertilizer, and food the North desperately needs – to bring about the collapse of the North Korea regime by cutting off shipments. The Chinese fear a flood of refugees across the porous Yalu and Tumen river borders with the North.

"China will cooperate to some extent with the UN resolution," says Mr. Paik. As for stopping and boarding North Korean ships, he goes on, "They will not do that."

As for stifling ties with companies and financial firms doing business with North Korea, which is also called for in the UN resolution, Paik says the Chinese "will cooperate to some extent," but not entirely.

In the end, he says, "the only thing that can possibly ease tensions is to have a political approach" – another attempt at negotiations, perhaps led from the US side by a high-profile official.