Nuclear Test: What North Korea Wants

North Korea's May 25 underground nuclear test, followed by the launch of a short-range missile, constitutes the latest challenge to the Obama administration. It also suggests the need for enhanced and immediate coordination among Russia, China, the United States, South Korea and Japan. (Story continued below...)

Seismic evidence shows that North Korea's official pronouncement that it has enhanced the power of its nuclear bombs since 2006 may be true. The U.S. put the most recent test at magnitude 4.7, Japan at 5.3, and Russia and South Korea around 5.1. In contrast, South Korea registered the 2006 test at only magnitude 3.6, much less significant than Monday's explosion. Villagers from neighboring China reported feeling the aftershocks.

Although North Korea's short-range missile, which traveled 80 miles, is less worrying as a technical feat, it was aimed at ratcheting up worries among U.S. and South Korean forces. It is the third in a North Korean trifecta that began with the launch of a long-range missile April 5. The White House, in an unusual middle-of-the-night statement, strongly condemned the nuclear test, asserting that North Korea was in "blatant defiance" of the United Nations Security Council.

Through its May 25 actions, North Korea reveals that its "military-first" hardliners are in control. Their objectives:

The onus of an international response now falls largely on China and Russia Pyongyang—both of whom resisted tighter sanctions after the April missile test and calls by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.Susan Rice for stronger wording. Pelosi's congressional delegation, traveling in China, and others urged Beijing to get Pyongyang back to the table for multilateral talks. Pyongyang announced last month it was walking away from the Six-Party Talks, though Beijing and Moscow cautioned others in the dialogue that Pyongyang would be back.

What needs to occur among the U.S., its allies Japan and South Korea and dialogue partners China and Russia is a seriously enhanced commitment toward solving rather than simply managing the North Korea problem. Talks should ensue with the five major players on how to push North Korea toward denuclearization. They also need some serious contingency planning if those efforts fail. The five parties should also posit regional models of change for North Korea. One example: nearby Mongolia, which on May 25 saw the election of Democratic Party candidate Ts. Elbegdorj as president following a vibrant campaign and high voter turnout; two decades ago, Mongolia, too, was a communist outpost. It embraced economic change, opening up to the outside world and labeling itself a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

Isolationist North Korea is a much tougher case—that is certain. And the international community needs to be ready, both to ease coordination and avert disagreement among the great powers, as well as to ease the cost burden of eventual integration that will befall South Korea.