Playing the role of "rogue state" has been one of North Korea's greatest skills, leaving neighboring states never knowing how much is bluff - and how much is real.
Now, by saying it will immediately start up a long-dormant nuclear reactor because of an electricity shortage - the regime of Kim Jong Il is playing one of its most dangerous cards and appears to be moving slowly toward brinkmanship with the United States.
Yesterday's move comes three days after North Korean-made Scuds were found on an unmarked Cambodian ship, and it seems designed to put maximum pressure on the Bush administration to deal with Pyongyang at an inconvenient time, analysts say.
The mercurial Mr. Kim is not ready for a genuine standoff, say many experts, though how Kim will back down from yesterday's open threat is not clear. A confrontation is possible, some analysts say, but others suggest that a crisis is what Kim needs to make a deal. "One thing is clear, this has nothing to do with electricity," says Paik Jin-hyun, professor at Seoul National University. "That reactor has always been an experimental reactor which has never been an energy source. Saying they need it for energy is nonsense. This is an effort to prod Bush."
Ten years ago a Soviet-designed reactor at the Yongbyon facility in the North caused a nuclear crisis on the peninsula when inspectors found it was being used to develop weapons-grade plutonium. The outcome was a 1994 treaty to shut down the program in exchange for two light-water reactors and fuel oil shipments.
That treaty held until this fall, when North Korea admitted to having a second, secret nuclear program to enrich uranium. Some experts feel Kim is now simply shopping for a more lucrative treaty arrangement. The White House, which considers the North part of an "axis of evil," has resolutely refused to deal with Kim until he agrees to scuttle his illegal uranium program.
That position, along with the vote of a consortium of US-led nations two weeks ago in New York to stop fuel oil shipments to the needy North - has contributed to the slowly developing crisis, and to some fears that Bush and Kim are moving in opposite directions. "We are not going to pay North Korea more to do what it is already supposed to do," a senior US official in Seoul says. "They have to comply with their agreements."
Analysts like Paul Kerr, a Korea peninsula specialist at the Arms Control Association in Washington, say that by its announcement yesterday North Korea is turning the US stance on its head. North Korea is effectively saying, "But we have a trump card - we already have facilities and fuel. Without talks and an end to pressure on our neighbors not to send us economic assistance, we have no choice but to use our card."
But Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, says the explanation may be other than the "conventional" - and he adds, that, in any case, the US has to be more proactive on the North Korean challenge, no matter what motivates the North.
The North's move comes on the eve of South Korean elections next week, and is a further blow to the once-promising Sunshine policy of outgoing President Kim Dae Jung.
It may simply be another example of the North's military acting to show "that it can't be pushed around," Mr. Sokolski says. But in any case Sokolski says the US - which he suspects is lying low on the Korean issue until after the elections - has to start taking some of the "bolder" action it is threatening.
"Right now the US is in a holding pattern, but it's not a policy to follow," he says. What the US should do, he adds, is something between the two extremes most camps fall into. "Most people are on the side of either grovel or bomb 'em, but I would say neither of either."
Based on various intelligence sources, Sokolski says that North Korea will continue to develop additional nuclear weapons - and very likely more powerful ones - with or without current agreements. He says the US should stop all "nuclear bribing," which hasn't worked anyway. Beyond that, he says the US needs to press much more heavily on its allies in the region who continue to deal with Kim.
"It's not enough to cut off our bribes, but [Japan and South Korea need to] make sure [North Korea] pays a price for violating all the international agreements [it] signed on to."
Sokolski says the US should also play the human rights card more than it is now. "That worked in the cold war."
Though coming from a different point of view, Arms Control's Mr. Kerr agrees that the US doesn't have a strategy for effectively dealing with North Korea. The administration has "no compelling answer" when asked why North Korea should dismantle its programs if the quid pro quos it negotiated are suspended. "Tough diplomacy is not the same as appeasement," he says. "We can still solve a problem that's getting worse... if we give North Korea a stake in giving up" on proliferation.
The greatest immediate threat at present lies in the technical capability of North Korea to turn its current cache of spent plutonium fuel rods into an estimated five or six nuclear weapons in a matter of months.
A statement issued from Pyongyang yesterday carefully avoided making any reference to the status of the rods, which are currently under the observation of international inspectors. But should Kim whisk them away, or kick out the inspectors, this would be seen as highly provocative. The North is already thought to have enough material for two nuclear devices, US intelligence sources feel.
"What is most urgent is the fuel rods," argues Dr. Paik. "If Kim starts to reprocess them, he can have the weapons quickly."
North Korea's enriched uranium program would take several years to develop, scientists say.
Brinkmanship with the White House comes after a summer in which it appeared the isolated Stalinist regime was beginning to open. The North experimented with market mechanisms, including an aborted effort at creating a special economic zone on the border of China. Kim began a historic dialogue toward normalization with arch-enemy Japan (which soured after the Japanese public felt the North did not give enough details on kidnap victims by the North.)
With South Korea, the North engaged steadily - sending sports teams, connecting a long shut down rail line, and allowing more reunions between family members estranged since the Korean War of the early 1950s.
Senior White House officials believe that one of Kim's main objectives is to force US leaders to come to Pyongyang - whether they desire to or not.
Kim's curious and unusual game, US officials argue, is to legitimate himself within his own regime by showing his people that important world leaders must come to Kim's door in order to solve dangerous problems in the midst of tense brinkmanship.