updated 1/6/2007 5:46:51 PM ET 2007-01-06T22:46:51

After months of escalating rhetoric, North Korea in early October told the world it was ready to conduct its first test explosion of a nuclear device. Days later, it made good on its word.

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Almost three months after the Oct. 9 underground blast, new questions are being raised about the communist country’s nuclear plans.

Does North Korea again have its finger on the atomic trigger? Is it likely to continue negotiations with the United States and other countries committed to dismantling its nuclear arms program?

“North Korea has the technical capability to conduct a nuclear test at any time,” Paik Hak-soon, an expert on North Korea at the Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul, said Saturday.

But he said the regime is unlikely to take such a provocative step now, because it is focused on winning U.S. concessions after the October test, though it would likely maintain the option as a pressure tactic in negotiations.

Concerns heightened abruptly in Asia on Friday after ABC News reported the North Koreans might be preparing another test explosion. Citing unidentified U.S. defense officials, the network said work was under way similar to steps taken before the October blast.

Top U.S. and South Korean officials, however, moved quickly to douse speculation of an imminent test.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her South Korean counterpart, Song Min-soon, said at a news conference Friday in Washington that there was no indication any test was imminent.

Still, stock prices in Seoul fell to their lowest level in more than three weeks, while South Korea’s currency hit its lowest level in more than a month.

Analysts base their skepticism on the changed scene since the October test.

U.S.: Nuclear-armed nation unacceptable
After the blast, the U.S. said it would never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea and the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved sanctions, including searches of Pyongyang’s international cargo.

Japan moved to virtually cut off bilateral trade with the impoverished North, and China, a close ally, showed signs of being fed up with its neighbor’s brinkmanship.

About three weeks after the test, North Korea agreed to return to stalled international talks on its nuclear weapons program, which involve the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

The six-nation forum, begun in 2003, reconvened late last month in Beijing after a yearlong boycott by North Korea, though little was achieved other than a commitment to meet again.

Yet that is probably enough to head off another test explosion, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University.

“The North doesn’t need to take any risk as long as the six-way process is under way,” he said.

Risk of becoming more isolated
Noriyuki Suzuki, director of Radiopress, a Japanese news agency that monitors North Korea’s media and analyzes the country’s power structure, also thinks a test blast is improbable.

“If North Korea conducts a test right now, it’s highly likely that the country will be further isolated in the six-way talks, ties with China and South Korea will deteriorate, and the talks on financial sanctions (with the U.S.) will likely be halted,” Suzuki said Saturday. “I don’t think it is reasonable to conduct a test at this point.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday that diplomats from the six countries were expected to meet again this month.

In 2005, North Korea pledged to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security guarantees and economic aid, but no progress has been made in implementing that accord.

A key sticking point has been North Korea’s demand that Washington first lift financial restrictions imposed over the regime’s alleged counterfeiting of $100 bills and money laundering.

In Beijing last month, American and North Korean experts discussed the financial restrictions during two days of meetings held separately from the nuclear talks. They made no breakthrough, other than the possibility of meeting again this month in New York.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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