North Korea’s previous nuclear test and missile launches had a ring of foot-stamping about them, certainly a modest security threat, but also a demand that Washington pay the nation some attention.
This time, its motives seem more complex, the international bravado blended with the mysteries of the secretive regime’s internal politics. Instead of tweaking the United States, the latest nuclear test may have been aimed at shoring up an ailing Kim Jong Il’s support from the country’s military establishment, many analysts said, perhaps to ensure that power remains within the Kim family.
Since reportedly suffering a debilitating stroke last year, Kim has been seeking a smooth handoff of power -- presumably to the youngest of his three sons -- and would like to settle the country’s long-running clash with Washington before that leadership shift takes place.
“Because of his declining health, Kim now feels he must be on a faster timetable,” said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul. “The U.S. has ignored him. He feels the pressure and he’s upping the odds.”
The nuclear test is the latest sign of a more assertive North Korean foreign policy. The North has escalated tensions with South Korea in recent months, abrogating some trade deals and professing to be preparing for war. And Monday’s underground explosion comes weeks after a rocket launch in April that Pyongyang claimed placed a communications satellite into orbit, but which most independent observers said was a disguised long-range missile test.
The satellite, if there was one, did not reach outer space, analysts say, and the U.S., South Korea and Japan nonetheless sought new United Nations sanctions.
Monday’s nuclear test was accompanied by the test-firing of a short-range missile, and possibly two more, according to unnamed South Korean officials. The news spawned protests in Seoul, where scores of activists marched brandishing a model of a nuclear weapon papered with pictures of Kim to protest the North’s move.
Analysts speculate that Kim is providing a fireworks show to secure the approval of his military generals.
“Since the appearance of health issues with Kim Jong Il last year, the North Korean military became more influential,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of Inter-Korean Relations Studies Program at Sejong Institute near Seoul.
“Therefore, I have a sense that the military may have concluded that possession of nuclear weapons is very important.”
Since his apparent stroke, Kim has been giving a larger hand in internal affairs to his trusted brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, whom he has publicly anointed as his second in charge and who may play a role in any transfer of power.
But analyst Cheong said Pyongyang may claim the test was in some part planned by Kim Jong Un, the leader’s youngest son, believed to be 27, and front-runner to assume control of the secretive state.
“The outside world tends to underestimate Kim Jong Un at his young age,” Cheong said. “If Kim Jong Un played a decisive role in this nuclear test, it helps spread internally and externally a perception that he is a man of resolution.”
But the opaqueness of the North Korean state makes it difficult for outsiders to pull together a clear picture of the regime’s motives.
For one thing, the regime may simply be continuing to test its nuclear devices and missiles because testing is the only way to improve their reliability. North Korea’s official news agency said that Monday’s nuclear detonation helped resolve technical problems that had prevented the country from improving its nuclear arsenal.
Other analysts say the nuclear test was one more swipe at Washington, a reaction to a sense in Pyongyang that the Obama administration has sidelined security issues on the Korean peninsula as it tends to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and tries to contend with what it sees as an emerging Iranian nuclear threat.
“Last year, a lot of people from Seoul and Washington visited Pyongyang telling Kim and his people that once Obama was in the White House, the U.S. was going to be a totally different entity to deal with,” said Lee Dong-bok, a senior associate in Seoul for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS.
“But it’s not working out that way. That’s the reason North Korea is acting in such an erratic manner.”
And in its growing disillusionment over the U.S. refusal to hold direct talks, Pyongyang could carry out more nuclear tests as a way to provoke the U.S. and its allies.
A North Korean official in Moscow has warned of new tests if the U.S. continues its “policy of intimidation against North Korea,” according to the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
Analysts could only guess why North Korea chose to conduct two tests on the same day, which many saw as a rash gamble.
“They know that Washington responds only when they brandish nuclear arms or missiles,” said Lee of the CSIS. “They also know the world is eager to know whether they are at a stage to combine nuclear power with missile know-how.
“So they might have done the tests together to create the impression that they are making headway to that goal.”
The risk in doing so, some observers said, is that the North may have laid all of its weapons-related bargaining cards on the table.
“They played all their aces -- they don’t have much else,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Kookmin University in Seoul.
He said Pyongyang also might “try to be inventive” and make a publicized attempt to sell nuclear materials to a Third World nation to keep its enemies guessing.
In Washington, U.S. military officials remained puzzled over North Korea’s motives for conducting the tests.
“North Korea is a closed society so knowledge and understanding of the motives is very difficult,” a Pentagon official said. “Clearly this is a regime that has in the past used these sorts of military activities to garner attention. But it is really difficult to say with any clarity what is on their minds.”
But Lankov said only one aspect of Pyongyang’s move was unexpected. “I’m surprised they did this so fast,” he said.
“I would have predicted that they would have waited a few months from their rocket launch to increase the tension, raise the pressure. This was a message not only for the U.S. but for all other parties involved: Don’t forget us.”
Staff writers Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Megan K. Stack in Moscow and Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.