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What’s in N. Korea’s latest shocker?

In an apparent move to raise the stakes at talks in Beijing, North Korea has reportedly told the other five parties talks that it would officially declare its nuclear weapons, and test them. But analysts say there’s still room for talking. By Kari Huus.
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In an apparent move to raise the stakes at talks in Beijing, North Korea has reportedly told the other five parties to the talks that it would officially declare its nuclear weapons, and test them. The comments, conveyed to reporters by a U.S. official, are on the face of it, shocking. But the comments have so far not shut down the talks, and analysts say they appear to leave wiggle room for negotiation.

Throughout the spiraling tensions between North Korea and the United States over the past 11 months, it has never been entirely clear precisely how far Pyongyang had gone in developing nuclear weapons. Intelligence suggests it has enough plutonium to make one or two crude bombs, though some observers have much higher estimates. Pyongyang uses the uncertainty as leverage — to press the United States to restore diplomatic ties and drop obstacles to North Korean aid and trade.

By saying it would formally declare its nuclear weapons and conduct a nuclear test, Pyongyang has walked to the brink, but stopped short of actually taking these actions, and short of demonstrating its capabilities.

The fact that there was no mention of timing for either the declaration or the test leaves open the possibility that progress toward a deal in Beijing could forestall both moves. And it remains possible, though not likely, that Pyongyang was bluffing entirely.

“What they have said is totally congruent with what they have been hinting at since at least June. This is the plausible next step,” says Jonathan Pollack, Asia expert at the Naval War College. “They have been saying what they will do if they don’t get an answer they can accept. ... But they are also saying, ‘It is in your power to get us to pull back from the precipice.’ ”

This is likely why the talks did not come to a screeching halt. In fact, a South Korean official said the diplomats agreed on the need to hold more talks.

Meanwhile, a White House spokeswoman said the talks were “positive” and dismissed the latest nuclear threats.

“North Korea has a long history of making inflammatory comments that serve to isolate it from the rest of the world,” White House spokeswoman Claire Buchnan said Thursday.

Risky strategy
Of course, no matter how they are weighed, the North Koreans’ words are intended to shock, and they do seem to put North Korea closer to actions with profound consequences.

If North Korea declares nuclear status and tests a weapon, it would drive Japan, China, and South Korea closer to the United States.

These countries are only partially aligned on how to handle Pyongyang’s threats, but cohesion is already much greater than it was at the start of the year, according to James Lilley a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He notes that Japan has been boarding North Korean ships, while China has hinted that it is capable of cutting off oil supplies and South Korea has turned down the tap on assistance to the North.

“If the North Koreans blow off that test, they are in deep kimchi, and they know it. They’re not fools,” said Lilley, who served as ambassador to China and to South Korea. “If they do it, they will justifiably take a big hit — and I don’t mean a nuclear hit — but right where it hurts, in their economy.”

Even if North Korea does test a weapon, it does not necessarily mean that its nuclear program is irreversible. But there are no precedents for countries that have declared and tested nuclear weapons to shut down their programs. Talks would be even more difficult, and the development would raise new issues.

“We would have to worry about proliferation by North Korea,” said Eric Heginbotham, senior fellow and Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And if they keep their weapons for an extended period, then we will have to deal with secondary proliferation problems — will South Korea want to get nukes? Japan? Taiwan? What happens to the credibility of the (non-proliferation treaty) and the (International Atomic Energy Agency), and all the norms associated with them?”

There also is the risk that a nuclear test could spark a movement in Washington to take military action. Hard-line voices in the administration have so far lost out to those who advocate talks. But how a declared nuclear North Korea might play among Americans, particularly in an election year, remains a wild card.

Despite Pyongyang’s threat, the first round of talks in Beijing talks can be seen as predictable, if not exactly a resounding success.

“The first session in this kind of thing is for people to lay out their position. ... This is the standard procedure to lay out the position, and it’s usually a tough position,” said Lilley. The second thing is to arrange for a second session. If you’ve done those two things, then you’ve accomplished something.”

But, he said, panic is a mistake. “It’s a cold-blooded, long-term game.”