BEIJING—Until shockwaves rattled seismographs worldwide, governments and experts debated whether North Korea's threat to test a nuclear bomb was just a ploy to push the Bush administration to hold face-to-face talks and drop financial sanctions.
Very little was known about the inner workings of the isolated and bankrupt dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, and there was no confirmation of Pyongyang's earlier claims of possessing nuclear weapons.
But North Korea's announcement Monday of a successful nuclear test and the seismographic signals that accompanied its declaration removed any ambiguity about its intentions.
"They want to be able to deliver a nuclear warhead. Their point is to put the United States or U.S. bases in Japan at risk and to claim a status as a world-class military power," said Daniel Sneider of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University.
Conjecture that the test was a dud because of its relatively small magnitude did nothing to lessen the sense of crisis that swept world capitals and sent the U.N. Security Council into emergency session.
Even the claim of a successful test "itself constitutes a threat to international peace and security," asserted President Bush.
If confirmed as a nuclear blast, North Korea would be joining Russia, China, the United States, France, Britain, India and Pakistan as declared nuclear weapons countries. Israel is also believed to have hundreds of nuclear weapons.
Now the question is whether the United States, China and South Korea can agree on steps to compel Pyongyang to reverse course. A failure could result in greater risk of North Korea selling nuclear technology or material, a regional arms race and miscalculations that could lead to a new Korean war.
Until now, the separate strategies of the three countries have failed to slow North Korea's nuclear march.
The United States insisted North Korea participate in six-party talks but at the same time used sanctions and other forms of pressure—only to let a weapons program incubate and grow. South Korea's "sunshine policy" of engagement provided the North with aid, investment and tourism, but got nothing in return. China, the North's main supplier of energy and food, thought Pyongyang would heed its warnings not to roil the waters of East Asia.
North Korea trumpeted its new deterrent as "a great leap forward," casting itself as victorious. But analysts say pressure on the Hermit Kingdom will build, making Pyongyang a likely loser as well.
"Everybody's a loser," said Moon Chung-in, a political scientist at Yonsei University in Seoul and a frequent adviser to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. "North Korea succeeded in gaining nuclear weapons, but now it will get all kinds of sanctions from neighboring countries."
Some analysts flayed Washington for not engaging Pyongyang directly in talks, and said North Korea had slid irreversibly into the global nuclear club.
"North Korea has succeeded in its nuclear ambition. The U.S. can do nothing at all now," said Shen Dingli, director of the U.S. Study Center at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Under the watch of the Bush administration, North Korea dropped out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, booted nuclear monitors, strengthened its missile capabilities and reprocessed nuclear fuel, giving it enough plutonium for up to 10 or more warheads.
In Seoul, President Roh publicly wrung his hands over the failure of policies toward North Korea, admitting that appeasement is unlikely to last in its present form.
"It could be said that the engagement policy has not been effective in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis," South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted Roh as saying.
Beijing issued a firm statement condemning North Korea for "brazenly" ignoring the worldwide opposition to its nuclear test, and demanded that it "abide by its pledges on denuclearization."
China in 2003 offered to host talks with the two Koreas, Russia, the United States and Japan on the nuclear crisis. It hosted five rounds of talks before they hit deadlock last year.
The nuclear test highlighted the fact that China never wanted to exercise its leverage to forestall the test. Indeed, some analysts say top Chinese leaders have a greater stomach for a nuclear-armed North Korea, with the turmoil it brings, than for the collapse of the Kim regime, which could take away a key friendly buffer state and send refugees into China.
"Many people believe a nuclear North Korea is not necessarily a bad thing for China," said Jin Linbo of the China Institute of International Studies.
But China's public posture was different. It has long called for a nuclear-free peninsula.
"China's efforts to solve the nuclear problem by peaceful talks has failed, the mechanism of the six-party talks has failed, and China's attempt to maintain security in the region has failed," said Zhang Liangui, a North Korea expert at the school for senior Communist Party officials in Beijing.
"There aren't many cards for China to play right now," Zhang added, saying he believes China will go along with U.N. sanctions.
"It plays into the hands of (recently installed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe, who can justify greater defense spending," said Peter M. Beck, a Northeast Asia expert for the International Crisis Group, which advocates peaceful crisis resolution.
"It also plays into the hands of hard-liners in Seoul, who say, `What do we have to show for nine years of sunshine policy?'" he said.
The already-battered Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which limits nuclear development and calls for global disarmament, also took a new hit, Beck said. It is under the NPT cloak that Western powers are trying to curb Iran's nuclear program.
Pyongyang's nuclear test, Beck said, "sends a signal to the world that even the most failed regime can defy the will of the United Nations and the United States."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20061009 NKOREA nations, 20061009 NKOREA timeline, 20061009 N Korea test, 20061009 Nuclear tests and 20061009 Nuke bomb size
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