Why Pyongyang May Test Its Bomb

East Asia could be on the verge of the nightmare it has been trying to avert for so long: a North Korean nuclear test that could set off a destabilizing WMD arms race in that part of the world. Last week Pyongyang announced it intends to test a nuclear bomb soon, and most U.S. and Chinese officials say they believe the statement was not merely a bargaining ploy. "It's as serious as a heart attack," says Frederick Jones of the National Security Council.

As evidence, U.S. officials point to the carefully constructed official statement issued by North Korea's Foreign Ministry--and the fact that its intention to test was broadcast to the North Korean people themselves. "The North Koreans always do what they say they're going to," says Jones.

U.S. officials now believe the only nation that can persuade North Korea to stand down is China, which has taken the lead in the long-suspended Six-Party Talks with Pyongyang (the other participants are the United States, Russia, South Korea and Japan). In the past Beijing has either temporarily interrupted or threatened to cut off North Korea's critical energy supplies, including oil and electricity, according to three U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reporting on Korea, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details are classified. Washington's hope is that Beijing will do the same now.

Chinese officials, however, suggest that even if they do move to punish Pyongyang, it may not do any good. They note that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il ignored Beijing's pleas when China tried to intervene with him this summer. China had insisted that Kim not test new missiles, but he went ahead anyway and fired off seven across the Sea of Japan in a macabre July 4 celebration. Shen Dingli, a senior Chinese foreign-policy analyst, has concluded it's too late to deter Kim from exploding a nuclear bomb. In a remarkably candid commentary published in a newspaper of the Communist Party's China Youth League last week, Shen warned that Pyongyang has already concluded that its national interests--including its nuclear ambitions--now eclipse the importance of its relations with China. Shen said Kim's regime believes it needs to test a bomb because that will unmistakably demonstrate its nuclear capability, which, in turn, will deter America from attacking it.

If Kim does test, what will Washington do? The lead U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, delivered the starkest warning yet to Pyongyang last week, saying North Korea "can have a future or it can have these weapons. It can't have both." U.S. officials say Hill was not threatening war, but rather referral to the U.N. Security Council under Chapter 7, which could mean new sanctions and increasing isolation. One U.S. intel official who has long followed North Korea (and requested anonym-ity because of the sensitivity of the subject) said that Kim Jong Il is behaving "like a bad-tempered teenage child." Perhaps, but most children don't play with nuclear bombs.