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Experts: North Korea Situation Can Worsen

Asia experts in the United States say there are steps North Korea could take to further inflame the international community's anger, following an explosion in North Korea Monday that Pyongyang claimed as a nuclear test.

Center for Strategic and International Studies fellow Jon Wolfsthal is a former U.S. Department of Energy official who served as an on-site monitor at North Korea's nuclear complex at Yongbyon. He says he expects the U.S. intelligence community will reach consensus as to whether the North Korean explosion was indeed nuclear within a week to 10 days.

"With decent luck, we'll be able to determine the composition of the weapon, generally, what it was designed to achieve, in terms of did they go anywhere near the yield they wanted to," said Jon Wolfsthal. "But we won't be able to tell anything about the overall make-up, the size of it, whether it was intended for a warhead, a simple demonstration. I think that's maybe beyond our capacity."

He said Monday's test is not the end of North Korea's nuclear development. Rather, he said he expects Pyongyang to conduct another nuclear test and to test-fire more missiles. He also expects North Korea to try to continue to increase its nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to have at least six bombs.

"They know if they want to stand up and stand toe-to-toe with the United States, which has roughly 6,000 nuclear weapons, they're going to need more than a dozen," he said. "And so, they're likely to expand their nuclear production capabilities in the future. Maybe they want to negotiate over that in the future, and that's another bargaining chip they can work on, but I think it's likely they'll move in that direction."

Wolfsthal added that he expects the North Koreans to temporarily shut down the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which was restarted in 2003, shortly after Pyongyang expelled international inspectors from the site. He estimates there is now enough plutonium in Yongbyon to make at least three bombs.

Meanwhile, another CSIS expert, Michael Green, who just recently left President Bush's National Security Council, said he expects Pyongyang to suggest that it might transfer nuclear materials to others, such as terrorists or rogue states.

"This is something that the North Koreans know would be suicide, but they know it gets our attention and I think they will vaguely hint at this threat by promising, quote, unquote, arms control negotiations, or talks on how to peacefully co-exist with the safe control of this nuclear deterrent, and so on and so forth," said Michael Green. "I think they will try in a variety of ways to keep frightening, stimulating, the neighborhood, including the U.S., to get concessions."

But former CNN Asia correspondent Mike Chinoy points out that Pyongyang has taken great pains to, in his words, state "explicitly that they would not export nuclear material." Chinoy, who is now a fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy, said official North Korean language has tried to portray the country as what he described as a "responsible new member of the nuclear club."

"They've talked about the tests taking place under strict scientific supervision, promising there would be no leak of radiation, talking about how this is designed to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula," said Mike Chinoy. "Now, one cannot accept ever at face value anything North Korea says. But they have clearly made a conscious decision to counter the negative impact that this has had, by couching what they're doing in those kinds of terms."

Chinoy added that it is hard to say what the North Koreans will do next. But he and other Korea experts say they are closely watching the U.N. resolution that imposes sanctions on North Korea, which is expected to be passed this week.