North Korea raises stakes in nuclear threats

North Korea’s nuclear test makes it no likelier that the regime will actually launch a nuclear attack, but it adds a scary dimension to another threat: the defiant North as a facilitator of the atomic ambitions of others, potentially even terrorists.

It also presents another major security crisis for President Barack Obama, already saddled with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a nuclear problem with Iran.

Obama assured the president of South Korea and the prime minister of Japan that the U.S. remains committed to the defense of their nations, the White House said in a statement following Obama’s calls to the leaders Monday night.

Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak "agreed that the test was a reckless violation of international law that compels action in response," the White House said. "They agreed to work closely together to seek and support a strong United Nations Security Council resolution with concrete measures to curtail North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities."

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that North Korea had test-fired two short-range missiles Tuesday after test-firing three short-range missiles Monday.

It’s far from clear what diplomatic or other action the world community will take. So far, nothing they’ve done has worked.

At an earlier juncture of the long-running struggle to put a lid on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the administration of President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s discussed with urgency the possibility of taking military action. That seems less likely now, with the North evidently nuclear-armed and the international community focused first on continuing the search for a nonmilitary solution.

Meeting in emergency session in New York, the U.N. Security Council on Monday condemned North Korea’s nuclear test as a clear violation of a previous U.N. resolution banning such testing. The council said it would begin work immediately on a new legally binding resolution.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Tuesday that the resolution "will have teeth in it, and I expect additional sanctions.

"The pressure will increase on North Korea economically and otherwise, and North Korea will recognize that its actions have only left it further isolated, and further debilitated," Rice said on CBS’ "The Early Show."

The North’s announcement that it conducted its second underground test of a nuclear device drew quick condemnation across the globe, including from its big neighbor and traditional ally, China. The Obama administration, which said the North’s action invited stronger, unspecified international pressure, has consistently called for Korean denuclearization but seemed not to have anticipated a deepening nuclear crisis.

Just two weeks ago, the administration’s special envoy for disarmament talks with North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said during a visit to Asian capitals that "everyone is feeling relatively relaxed about where we are at this point in the process." If so, they are no longer.

North Korea conducted its first atomic test in 2006 and is thought to have enough plutonium to make at least a half-dozen nuclear bombs. It also is developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, in defiance of U.N. actions.

One of the first estimates of the size of Monday’s nuclear explosion came from the Russian defense ministry, which put the yield at between 10 and 20 kilotons — comparable to the U.S. bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945. But a senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it appeared the explosive yield was much smaller, perhaps a few kilotons. The official said more technical analysis would be done in coming days.

The administration official also disclosed that North Korea notified the State Department less than one hour before the explosion that it intended to conduct a nuclear test at an unspecified time. The U.S. then notified China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, the official said.

The United States could still try to resuscitate so-called six-party talks with the North as well as work with other members of the United Nations. North Korea has vowed not to resume participation in the six-party talks with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.

The Bush administration worked hard to get China, in particular, to press the North Koreans to denuclearize, and it seems likely that Obama will push equally hard with Beijing, which sided with the North Koreans against U.S. and United Nations forces during the 1950-53 Korean War. In recent years the Chinese have openly criticized the North Koreans for the nuclear arms program.

Two of the main worries about North Korea are left unsaid: Would it use a nuclear bomb to attack a neighbor or the United States? And might it continue an established pattern of selling nuclear wherewithal and missiles to foreign buyers?

Graham Allison, an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and now director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said Monday that the international community regularly underestimates North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s willingness to do the unexpected.

"Could this guy believe he could sell a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden?" Allison asked in a phone interview. "Why not?"


Robert Burns has covered national security affairs for The Associated Press since 1990.