North Korea Planning a Nuke Test?

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A South Korean protester smashes a mock atomic bomb during a rally against North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program

The talks in Beijing have not gone well. Discussions between U.S. and North Korean diplomats aimed at exploring ways to ease the standoff over the communist country's nuclear program broke off Thursday, a day early, with North Korea warning that it had already developed nuclear weapons and threatening to conduct a "physical demonstration" of its capability. The threat followed Wednesday's comments by a Russian diplomat engaged with the issue that a "catastrophic development" may be days away, and suggests that the North Koreans may planning to test a nuclear device — or, at least, that they want Washington to believe they are. Secretary of State Colin Powell said of the North Koreans, "They should not leave [the talks]... with the slightest impression that the United States and its partners and the nations in the region will be intimidated by bellicose statements or by threats or actions they think might get them more attention or might force us to make a concession that we would not otherwise make."

Washington hawks have repeatedly warned that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il should learn a lesson from Iraq. The latest escalations suggests he may have done so, although not the lesson that U.S. officials had in mind. Only last week, a statement from North Korea's foreign ministry noted: "The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation, it is necessary to have a powerful deterrent force only." And mixed signals emanating from the Bush administration may have reinforced that conviction.

North Korea went into the talks demanding that Washington agree to a non-aggression pact that rules out any U.S. attempt to force regime-change in Pyongyang. The U.S. representative at the talks, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelley, made clear that a nuclear-armed North Korea was unacceptable to the U.S. and its allies in the region, but that the North Koreans have no reason to fear renouncing nuclear weapons because the U.S. has no intention of attacking them. But Kelley's was not the only voice from Washington to which the North Koreans were listening.

An internal Bush administration memorandum purportedly written by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and leaked to the New York Times on the eve of the talks calls for the U.S. to actively pursue the overthrow of the North Korean regime. That won't have helped Kelley reassure Pyongyang. Nor was it intended to — the hawks had reportedly opposed sending Kelley to Beijing, preferring to send one of their own, Undersecretary of State for Non-Proliferation John Bolton who has a well-earned reputation as an ultra-hawkish bomb-thrower.

The North Korean delegates to the Beijing talks were well aware of the infighting in Washington, and reportedly quizzed Kelley on the Rumsfeld memo. The diplomat assured them that the Defense Secretary's memo — which suggests a somewhat farfetched alliance with China to topple Kim Jong Il — was not U.S. government policy. But the North Koreans may not be convinced by the soothing assurances of a State Department appointee over the growls emanating from the triumphal Defense Department.

Regardless of the tone taken in Washington, however, North Korea appears bent on ratcheting up the confrontation. Many Korea analysts had long viewed Pyongyang's nuclear brinkmanship as part of a pattern of extortion — acting in a menacing way, and then promising good behavior in exchange for economic assistance. But many fear that Kim Jong Il may have decided that a nuclear deterrent is the only way to ward off the threat of U.S. military action to smash his regime, and that while pressure from neighbors such as China — which is North Korea's economic life-support system right now — could force Kim into agreements to refrain from developing atomic weapons, that he may have no intention of keeping such agreements.

It appears less likely that a post-Iraq Bush administration would allow itself to be seen "appeasing" a charter member of the President's "Axis of Evil" by offering political and economic rewards in exchange simply for a measure of restraint. Indeed, both sides in Beijing may have agreed to talk simply to buy time. Pyongyang wants to placate neighbors — the fact that China recently closed off its oil pipeline to North Korea for a couple of days may have played a major role in getting Pyongyang to the table — but its rhetoric right now suggests it is not expecting the U.S. to give it the security guarantees on which it insists, and is instead plowing ahead in search of a nuclear deterrent. And the Bush administration, also, may be responding to a need to placate its anxious allies in the region and resolve its internal policy dispute over North Korea. The best hope, going into the talks, had been for an agreement to hold further talks. But in the hostile atmosphere that prevailed on Thursday, it's not clear whether even that limited goal was achieved.

While North Korea may be moving to ratchet up the crisis, not even Washington's hawks are pushing for a military response — at least not yet. Its conventional artillery capability would allow North Korea to flatten Seoul in the first half-hour of any confrontation. The human cost of going to war may too prohibitive in this instance. Instead, the hawks want to isolate North Korea and force its collapse through sanctions. So moribund and dependent is the North Korean economy that sanctions would indeed spark social collapse, which is why Pyongyang has warned it will treat any embargo as a declaration of war. That may be just fine with Washington hawks, but there's no support in the region for sanctions, which makes them a non-starter: The U.S. has hardly any economic leverage over North Korea, while its principal donors such as China and South Korea fear that starving the regime would bring chaos.

That leaves the option of a policy of malign neglect, in which the U.S. blocks North Korea's rehabilitation and simply allows the regime's own decrepitude to bring it down. That carries the same long-term fear of chaos for North Korea's neighbors, but more important, it may also make the regime's nuclearization irreversible. Two days of talks in Beijing have confirmed that, if anything, the Korean peninsula may have become even more dangerous in the wake of Iraq.