North Korea Raises the Stakes

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We'll see your financial sanctions and raise you a nuclear bomb test. So, in essence, went North Korea's latest bid in the high-stakes poker game with the U.S. over its nuclear program.

North Korea's foreign ministry made the unprecedented announcement Tuesday that the regime would test a nuclear weapon at an unspecified point in the future. The statement cited among Pyongyang's reasons for considering the step the "vicious sanctions and pressure" it said the U.S. was using to "isolate and stifle" North Korea. Those sanctions, intensified in the wake of North Korea's test firing of a long-range missile in July and confirmed in a U.N. Security Council resolution last month, were part of a U.S.- and Japan-led drive to squeeze the regime in Pyongyang to reverse course on its nuclear program. Instead, North Korea is threatening to raise the ante by testing a nuclear weapon — a step that would finally confirm Pyongyang's February 2005 claim to have built such weapons. (Although U.S. intelligence has concluded that North Korea has sufficient fissile material to build six devices, the actual extent of its technological progress in transforming that material into working nuclear warheads remains a matter of speculation.)

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The threat to test a weapon certainly fits with the traditional North Korean game of provocative threats and actions aimed at securing concessions. It hasn't yet named a date, of course, and its statement makes clear that it wants a negotiated settlement with the U.S. at the end of the day. But testing a weapon would mark the crossing of a threshold over which retreat may be difficult. Only one country has ever dismantled an arsenal of actual nuclear weapons, and that was South Africa during the early 1990s, in one of the final acts of the outgoing apartheid regime.

Previous North Korean saber-rattling has been directed at squeezing more concessions out of the U.S. and its allies around the six-party negotiating table. The six-party process, which also involves South Korea, China and Russia, remains stalled amid sharply differing interpretations between the U.S. and North Korea over what had previously been agreed. North Korea has repeatedly pushed for direct talks with the U.S. — an idea supported by South Korea, China and Russia — but Washington has insisted, much as it has in its nuclear standoff with Iran, that it will only do business with Pyongyang on the basis set out in the multiparty process.

The North Korean statement made clear that once it had tested a weapon, it would continue to pursue the goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, but seemed to suggest that it would negotiate with a weapon in hand. The goal of diplomacy, it said, could not be "unilateral disarmament," but instead "settling the hostile relations between the DPRK and the U.S. and removing the very source of all nuclear threats from the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity."

Pyongyang clearly wants the international community to believe that it is prepared to dramatically raise the stakes now in pursuit of a "grand bargain" agreement with the U.S. All the diplomatic players have adopted familiar responses, with Japan threatening harsh responses to a nuclear test and Russia and China calling for restraint and diplomacy. Hawks in the U.S. policy debate will say the new threat is a sign that sanctions are effective and are hurting the regime; doves will warn that escalating pressure will simply provoke the North Koreans into crossing the nuclear Rubicon.

In Pyongyang, however, the calculation may be different: The experience of India and Pakistan shows that no matter how hostile the initial response of the international community is to newcomers breaking into the exclusive club of nuclear-armed nations, the weapon's daunting capability eventually forces everyone to find ways of dealing with those states to avoid confrontation. That, unfortunately, may be an example the North Koreans are now opting to follow.