Deciphering North Korea's Latest Nuclear Move

Kim Jong Il seems to have a penchant for spoiling American holidays. In July 2006, North Korea test fired seven ballistic missiles just before Independence Day, provoking an international outcry. Now on Memorial Day 2009, the Dear Leader's generals conducted North Korea's second nuclear test, which South Korean officials estimate had an explosive power as much as three to four times the strength of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Story continued below...)

Whether Kim's henchmen purposefully timed the test for Memorial Day is unclear. One theory is that Pyongyang tested its nukes to rally the nation because of Kim's reported health problems and the looming succession issue. It's a logical explanation, but like all things North Korean, there's nothing to prove that.

Then how to decipher North Korea's motives? It's not about having secret sources inside the Hermit Kingdom. As simple as it may seem, seasoned negotiators and experts say that North Korea's Foreign Ministry statements are the most reliable source of information when it comes to analyzing Pyongyang's policies and motives. True, these statements are littered with nationalistic rhetoric on the "hostile policies" of the U.S., Japan and South Korea. But buried in these messages are North Korea's true intentions and demands. "[The statements] do contain a lot of bombast that can sometimes obscure their core position, but if you read them closely, ultimately what they demand and request, their bottom lines are very clear," says Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert at The Asia Foundation in Washington.

Judging from those statements, the top brass of the Korean People's Army now seem to have the upper hand in Kim Jong Il's decision making. Since the beginning of this year, the KPA's General Staff increased the number of statements it issued-something that rarely happened in previous years, indicating that the KPA is now heavily involved in policy formulation.

The North Koreans hinted at its nuclear gambit as early as late March, when a government statement suggested that Pyongyang would continue to downsize their nuclear warheads to fit on a ballistic missile, and reassemble its nuclear facility which was "disabled" last year. Then in late April, another foreign ministry statement said the country would be "compelled to take additional self-defensive measures" that include "nuclear tests and test-firings of intercontinental ballistic missiles."

This time around, the North Koreans might have forced themselves into a position where they had no choice but to go ahead with its nuclear test. "The North Koreans [conducted the test] because they said so," says Kenneth Quinones, a former U.S. State Department negotiator. "They painted themselves into a corner. It would've been an embarrassment for them if they flaked out, so they had no choice but to go ahead with the test."

In its statements, Pyongyang has laid out its price for denuclearization. Throughout the course of past negotiations, North Korea has been portrayed by the media as constantly raising the price for a nuclear deal. But Pyongyang's demands have been clearly delineated in its previous foreign ministry statements-namely the construction of light-water reactors, a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, normalization of diplomatic and commercial relations with Washington, the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea and the assurance that there are no American nuclear weapons in the South. As a negotiation ploy, the North Koreans would reshuffle the priorities of their demands, or restate a demand that has been shelved--hence its unpredictable image.

North Korea's ultimate goal is national survival. And to that end, Pyongyang now sees its nuclear weapons program as a better assurance than negotiations at the six-party talks involving the United States, China, the two Koreas, Japan and Russia. After Monday's nuclear test, Kim Jong Il's generals probably feel a bit stronger.