North Korea may be playing nuclear brinkmanship in an effort to command more attention from the United States.
Desperate for negotiations that might lead to economic aid and political concessions from the US and its allies, Pyongyang appears to be trying a strategy well-known to the parents of small children - misbehavior.
By cutting seals placed by international inspectors and regaining access to mothballed nuclear facilities, North Korea has intensified the crisis over its weapons programs at a time when the Bush administration wants the world to focus on another member of its axis of evil, Iraq.
Whether they want to or not, administration officials will now have to spend more time dealing with the Korean nuclear issue. They also may have to ponder a worst-case scenario: that the secretive regime of Kim Jong Il is not bluffing, and has in fact decided to try to become a nuclear power as fast as it can.
"I really think this is very serious. The stakes are larger here than in Iraq," says Steven Bosworth, dean of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., and a former US ambassador to South Korea.
North Korea's decision to abandon all pretense of nuclear restraint took Washington - indeed, the world - by surprise. On Saturday, North Korean officials disabled seals and inspections equipment placed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at a nuclear reactor in Yongbyon. Shortly thereafter, according to the IAEA, North Korea carried out a similar action at a spent-fuel facility nearby.
An unclassified US government intelligence assessment holds that the North Koreans already have one or possibly two nuclear weapons using plutonium produced in the early 1990s. Regaining access to the 8,000 spent-fuel rods "would recover enough plutonium for several more weapons," according to assessment documents.
North Korea justified its moves by saying it needs the electricity that Yongbyon could produce. The United States had been shipping oil to the energy-starved nation under an agreement struck during the Clinton administration. But those shipments were halted following Pyongyang's Oct. 4 admission that it had a clandestine uranium-enrichment program intended to produce fissile material for weapons.
North Korea has demanded that the US enter into new diplomatic negotiations as a price for nuclear restraint. So far, the Bush administration has refused, saying it won't talk in response to threats.
The US "will not bargain or offer inducements for North Korea to live up to the treaties and agreements it has signed," said State Department spokesman Lou Fintor on Monday.
With the 1994 deal now in tatters, the Bush team is facing difficult choices. They can call North Korea's bluff, and continue to refuse to negotiate. If they do, and Pyongyang remains adamant, the US might begin planning a military strike on the Yongbyon facilities - as the Clinton administration did prior to the diplomatic breakthroughs that led to the '94 pact.
If nothing else, the current situation shows the unpredictability of Kim Jong Il, and the depths of despair in which North Korea finds itself, says Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Pyongyang appears to have exasperated its last ally, China. It has little food, virtually no fuel, and no economic development. "It has no friends, no way of attracting attention. Occasionally it seeks crises in order to get that attention," says Mr. Mitchell, who was a special assistant in Asia/Pacific affairs at the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.
The Bush administration came into office determined not to fall for what it considered Pyongyang's playacting. The result: The North Korean regime now appears determined to ratchet up pressure.
"Now it's a sort of tit for tat, or game of chicken, where each side feels it has a lot of face to lose," says Mitchell.
The North Koreans almost might feel that now is a particularly good time for it to gain the diplomatic upper hand. With the US government increasingly preoccupied with planning for a possible war against Iraq, the White House might give a little just to get North Korea to go away and behave.
There is also a growing distance between the US and South Korea that Pyongyang is undoubtedly tempted to exploit. Anti-Americanism is on the rise in South Korea, and newly elected president Roh Moo hyun won in part due to his promises of a softer line towards South Korea's northern neighbor. "For a long time, North Korea's strategy has aimed at splitting the US and South Korea, so I think we have to concentrate on putting that back together," says Mr. Bosworth. "That means we're going to have to listen to South Korea about the North, not just impose our views on them."
North Korea's strategy is likely to succeed in the sense that the international clamor for negotiations will now almost certainly grow, say experts. On Monday, Russia warned that the US was putting North Korea under pressure that could prove problematic. "It is counterproductive and dangerous to blackmail North Korea," said Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov.