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Why North Korea is ratcheting up its sharp rhetoric

Pyongyang may fulfill a vow to conduct another nuclear test, analysts say. It may also be testing US response.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2009

At an observation post near the demilitarized zone separating the two Korea in Paju, South Korea, a tourist visits a pavillion with a board showing details of North Korean missiles. North Korea's foreign ministry said April 25 that they have started to extract plutonium from spent fuel rods at its nuclear arms plant. The North, by most intelligence estimates, has made at least six nuclear warheads but is not believed to have fabricated a warhead small enough to fit on the tip of a long-range missile like the one that flew 2,000 miles when tested in early April.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters

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SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA

North Korea is elevating the nuclear threat level to new extremes while American policy on what to do about it appears highly uncertain to Korean observers.

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That's the impression analysts are getting from the North's latest and probably most sensational demand, that the United Nations Security Council issue an apology for having condemned its test-firing of a long-range Taepodong-2 missile on April 5.

Most analysts say North Korea is serious about carrying out its threat to "defend its supreme interests," as a North Korean spokesman put it, with "measures that will include nuclear tests and test-firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles."

The real question is how soon North Korea will be able to test another warhead – and how long the North is prepared to wait to see if the United States shows serious signs of yielding to direct dialogue outside the format of six-party talks.

"I think it's an actual threat," says Paik Sung-joo, director of the Center for Strategy and Security at the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses. He dismisses the view that North Korea's declarations in response to the UN condemnation "constitutes a rhetorical threat only."

North Korea now "wants to demonstrate that it's completing its nuclear system," he says. "They must improve the device and the delivery system" – that is, the nuclear warhead and the means to fire it to distant targets.

The North, by most intelligence estimates, has made at least six nuclear warheads but is not believed to have fabricated a warhead small enough to fit on the tip of a long-range missile like the one that flew 2,000 miles when tested in early April.

North Korea conducted its only underground nuclear test in October 2006, but the device was far smaller than any tested by the eight full-fledged nuclear powers – an elite grouping among which the North would like recognition as a member.

Question of successor looms

The timing of North Korea's next test appears to rest on two major considerations – the North's own succession crisis and evolving US policy.

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, "is not in the greatest of health and the succession issue is unresolved," observes Dean Ouellette, a research fellow at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "With the missile-firing," he believes, North Korea is actually "trying to slow the process down," keeping the world on edge while working through problems at home.

Selecting Mr. Kim's successor seems to have become a top priority last August when he reportedly suffered a stroke that may have weakened his left side. Kim, who also suffers from diabetes, looked frail and appeared to have lost weight when he chaired a session of the Supreme People's Assembly several days after the firing of the Taepodong-2.

The session unanimously roared its approval of another term for Kim as chairman of the national defense commission, the center of power in North Korea, and named his brother-in-law Jang Song-taek a commission member. Mr. Jang is seen as Kim's right-hand man – and likely regent behind Kim's successor.

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