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Reason, Timing of North Korea Nuclear Test Puzzle Analysts


North Korea's announcement October 9 that it had successfully detonated a nuclear explosion set off international shock waves, even though Pyongyang had previously announced it had developed a nuclear arms capability. The real question puzzling analysts is the timing of the test.

North Korea had bragged of having nuclear weapons. Its actual test, which at one kiloton was a popgun by modern nuclear arms standards, was the first confirmation of Pyongyang's nuclear capability. So, why did it decide to do it now and incur worldwide condemnation?

One Washington-based diplomat who follows North Korea closely, but who asked not to be named, said the North Korean government of Kim Jong-il is a regime that, as he put it, lives on the edge, thrives on risk-taking behavior, and usually gets away with it.

Rodger (cq) Baker is vice president of Global Political Analysis for Stratfor, a private intelligence firm that analyzes world trends for corporations. He says the nuclear test may have had a long-range goal.

He said, "They've determined that there's no way to solve the nuclear crisis before the end of the Bush administration. What they then wanted to do was set a situation in play that, whoever replaces Bush in two years will have no choice but to deal with North Korea immediately when they come in."

He says by setting off the nuclear device, North Korea used up its only remaining bargaining chip.

He said, "All North Korea did was demonstrate what everybody already believed it had the capability to do, and eliminate any more bargaining chips. The North Koreans, once they have tested, cannot really go back and untest. They have now done it. The end. You know, what's the next threat from the North Koreans?"

North Korea and the United States had an agreement, reached in 1994, in which North Korea would get help in developing peaceful nuclear energy in return for renouncing nuclear weapons. But the agreement, which was not a pact, but more of a memorandum of understanding, never really took hold.

When North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, new six-party talks on the nuclear issue began that included North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan. But those talks stalled.

Joel Wit, a former diplomat who spent much of his career dealing with the North Korea issue, says the North Koreans essentially decided that the six-party talks would not work and to push ahead.

"The North Koreans basically came to the conclusion that diplomacy was not going to work any more, that the six-party talks were essentially dead, and that they could not do business with the Bush administration. And, as a result of that, the voices in favor of a nuclear deterrent in Pyongyang won out," he said.

Pyongyang has agitated for direct talks with the United States. But, as President Bush noted in an October 11 press conference, there would be no one-on-one negotiations with North Korea or Iran - another alleged aspiring nuclear power.

He emphasized that the U.S. would only talk with North Korea under the auspices of the six-party talks.

He said, "My point was, bilateral negotiations didn't work. I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations. It just didn't work. And, therefore, I thought it was important to change how we approached the problem, so that we could solve it diplomatically. And, I firmly believe that with North Korea and with Iran that it is best to deal with these regimes with more than one voice."

But Joel Wit says the six-party talks will not work, and that Washington will eventually have to talk directly with Pyongyang.

"The fact is the six-party talks are never going to be able to solve this problem through diplomatic means. They are an incredibly imperfect instrument for reaching an agreement. And that leads me and many others to the conclusion that the United States needs to engage North Korea directly through bilateral talks," he said.

Another motivation for the nuclear test, some analysts say, may have been U.S. targeting of North Korean finances. The United States accused North Korea of counterfeiting U.S. currency.

At U.S. request, China shut down some of the suspect banks in Macao, which is Chinese territory, and there are reports of further Chinese financial pressure on North Korea.

Daniel Pinkston, East Asia director of the Center for Non-Proliferation in Monterey, California, says that hit the North Korean leadership where it really hurt.

He said, "This U.S. targeting of their international financial transactions has been very effective. And this has impacted Kim's ability to acquire foreign exchange, which is necessary for maintaining his political machine and maintaining his coalition and maintaining their loyalty. He's had to respond, or stand up to this in some way. People around him are saying, 'hey, what are you going to do about this?' And this is basically the only thing he can do is to demonstrate there are limits to how far he can be pushed around."

Now North Korea faces new sanctions under a U.N. Security Council resolution. How tough its neighbors, China and South Korea, will be in enforcing those sanctions remains to be seen.

James Lilley, a former U.S. ambassador to both South Korea and China, says China will make North Korea pay for the nuclear test in its own way and in its own time.