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.
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.
The youngest of Kim's three sons, Kim Jong-un, given a defense post as "inspector," is believed to be in line for power as the first third-generation family member to inherit the top post of any communist country.
Using threat to gauge US response
Amid the backstage maneuvering for succession, North Korea also is clearly weighing the possible US response to the drama of rhetoric and testing. North Korea has made clear it's not interested in continuing six-party talks, last held in December, while the US State Department routinely calls for returning to the table.
For starters, says Choi Jin Wook, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification, North Korea wants the Security Council to cancel the sanctions imposed by a resolution adopted after the 2006 nuclear test.
The resolution appeared ineffective as long as the sanctions were not enforced, but China, Russia, and others now appear ready to observe them more faithfully than before. Moreover, says Mr. Choi, "No international bank will make transactions" with North Korea while the sanctions are enforced.
"The US wants to pressure North Korea," Choi believes. "They are playing a game of bluffing each other."
'They could do it in two months'
It is a dangerous game, however, in which North Korea is expected to make good on its threat of a nuclear test in the fairly near future.
The US special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, is due here for talks next week to discuss a common strategy. He is expected to sound out the South Koreans on their view of dialogue between the US and North Korea. The North has long sought direct talks with the US, a move viewed here as an attempt to sideline and isolate the South.
One consideration will be the degree to which the US chooses to fight the spread of nuclear weapons and technology under the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a program for banding scores of nations together to cooperate on blocking shipments.
South Korean foreign ministry officials have said the South has made a "firm and clear" decision to join PSI as a core member, after having participated in exercises as an observer. But North Korea has said such a move by the South would be considered "a declaration of war."
If nothing else, North Korea could respond to the South's joining PSI by staging attacks on South Korean patrol boats in the West or Yellow Sea, similar to those in June 1999 and June 2002.
At the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, Kim Tae-woo, the vice president, believes North Korea is looking for any pretext to conduct another nuclear test and will do so possibly sooner than later.
By demanding an "apology" from the UN Security Council, Mr. Kim says, "they are asking something not acceptable" while "trying to accumulate legitimacy for the next nuclear test."
It "will not take much time" for North Korea to be ready to test a warhead, he goes on, since the North has started reprocessing spent fuel rods at its nuclear complex at Yongbyon. "They could do it in two months," he says. "They are waiting for the US position as well as dialogue. The US has not yet set its North Korean policy."