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:

Confront the Obama administration with the strongest possible challenge in order to win concessions and register firmness. In particular, the hardliners wanted to send that signal in advance of future U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks, which were discussed by special envoy Stephen Bosworth with Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo in recent weeks. Pyongyang has now offered President Obama the first of his 3 a.m. wake-up calls alluded to in the U.S. presidential campaign. The June 4 trials of two American journalists seized on the China-North Korea border will present Washington with its next challenge from Pyongyang. Coming on the 20th anniversary of Beijing's Tiananmen crackdown, the "trials" remind Washington of continued affronts in northeast Asia. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in China on May 25, noted "great alarm" over North Korea's "clear violation" of Security Council Resolution 1718, prohibiting North Korea from testing.

Sow discord among the other Six-Party Talks members, who have failed to come up with a common response. In contrast to the White House statement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov registered "concern" and China was initially mute—though a Monday-afternoon Security Council meeting saw more unified statements of concern over North Korea's actions. For its part, Japan reacted with alarm. Calls are mounting in Tokyo for much harder responses to Pyongyang, which could prompt a regional arms race. In South Korea, markets and the won declined, further shaking a country that was already reeling from the suicide of former populist president Roh Moo Hyun on May 23. For successor Lee Myung-bak, the North Korean test is a further challenge on top of recent disputes with Pyongyang over the joint Kaesong industrial zone.

Impress upon the North Korean population and international observers that they remain firmly in control, despite lingering concerns over the impact of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's August stroke. Kim was this spring "reappointed" as head of the National Defense Commission by North Korea's assembly; also on the all-powerful commission designee list was a placeholder for one of his sons—the first indicator of that the succession may be in play. The handoff of an enhanced nuclear capability, less than two months after North Korea's long-range missile traveled 2,000 miles, seals Kim's legacy from a North Korean perspective. But former president Bill Clinton has suggested that Pyongyang may be masking discord from within. One certainty is that through the test, military leaders are seeking to stifle international conjecture about the regime's solidity—this after recent rumors of a Chinese plan to position its forces across North Korea in the event of a rapid disintegration of the Pyongyang regime.

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.