Why North Korea May Start Nuclear Testing

North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, is back in the spotlight as he plays a dangerous survival game, threatening the world yet again with his nuclear arms program. On May 1, Pyongyang heightened concern by launching a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan. North Korea announced in February

that it has produced atomic weapons as a "deterrent for self-defense." The U.S. believes it may have enough nuclear material to produce six to nine bombs. Now speculation is rampant that Pyongyang will soon launch an underground nuclear test. Here's a look at the complex issues in the standoff.

Is North Korea's nuclear test imminent?

A test would represent a drastic step for Kim, since North Korea has lots to lose from such a move. Its poor economy, with severe food and energy shortages, is not sustainable without outside help, particularly from China. Kim would have to convince Beijing that Washington is to blame for the failure to resolve the nuclear stalemate -- otherwise his alliance with China could be damaged irreparably. "The importance of the China factor will make it hard for the North to go ahead with a nuclear test," says Koh Yu Hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul. Still, some U.S. officials think Pyongyang may be moving toward a test, especially since Kim has crossed every other red line with impunity.

Why would Kim take such a risk?

If he is convinced the U.S. is serious about ousting him, Kim may want to prove that he indeed has the bomb. His gamble would be that full recognition as a nuclear power would give him more leverage in talks -- even though the North would face international sanctions that could cut off food and energy supplies. As Kim sees it, any deal must guarantee that he remains in power. Since last June, Pyongyang has refused to take part in six-party talks hosted by China because it wants firm security guarantees from Washington, which the Bush Administration has refused to give.

What are the likely consequences of a test?

Even China would probably back a push for international sanctions via the U.N. Security Council. And millions could face starvation if aid from China, South Korea, and Japan were to be cut off. Experts believe a nuclear North Korea also could trigger an arms race involving Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which would feel they need nukes to defend themselves. They would say: "This is a security threat to us, and we have to match it in kind," says Joseph Cirincione, an arms-control expert at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What about other strains?

Although states protesting a test would be united at first, relations could deteriorate as sanctions bite. While Washington for years has wanted to see the North collapse economically and politically, Beijing and Seoul fear the flood of refugees that could result. Thus Beijing and Seoul want the U.S. to be more accommodating and coax North Korea back to the table. "Ruptures among involved parties will only grow if the U.S. seeks a regime change," warns Paik Hak Soon, director of the Center for North Korea studies at the Sejong Institute, which advises Seoul. This labyrinth may stymie all attempts at escape.

By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul, with Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

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