HONG KONG — Any day now the mere oscillation of a seismograph needle could precipitate uncertainties and greatly increase tensions: North Korea may become the second East Asian nation to shock the world with an underground nuclear test explosion, just as China did at Lop Nor in 1964.

At the end of April the Bush administration informed the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and several allied nations that an underground test was being prepared by the North Koreans and could take place as early as June. Governments made sure that their seismographs were ready to read any rumbles emanating from northeast North Korea. Prudently, the Americans were not categorical regarding dates.

Washington knows full well that, as ever, North Korea marches to its own unpredictable drumbeat. The current personification of the Kim communist dynastic dictatorship, Kim Jong Il, will decide on the propitious moment for that initial nuclear detonation, perhaps in consultation with one or two North Korean military leaders.

While North Korea’s timing may be unpredictable, it seems fairly certain that the test will eventually take place, mainly because the two nations with the capacity to stop it do not wish to do so.

China could ruthlessly withhold its regime-sustaining aid to Pyongyang, but Beijing has decided that it much prefers a weak, albeit nuclear, client state on its border rather than risk North Korea’s collapse and the emergence of a dynamic reunited Korea.

The United States could try to entice Kim with a generous package of concessions. But the Bush administration sees any such “gift” as encouraging nuclear proliferation as well as sustaining an obnoxious regime. Kim would still recognize that his retention of nuclear weapons was the only guarantee of continued American “generosity.”

Additionally, Beijing now rejects insistent American pressure aimed at getting China to fully exert its influence over North Korea. For nearly a year now, China had been either unwilling or unable to even get North Korea to resume participation in the six-party talks (the two Koreas, Russia, Japan, China and the United States) — the object of which has been to reinstate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But even if, as some diplomats currently hope, a fourth round of six-nation talks does take place, it will probably only mean that a North Korean nuclear test will be delayed for a while.

U.S. spy satellites detect North Korean tunnel-building and excavation in a northeastern region in the vicinity of Kilju. One such excavation has been filled in, consistent with preparations for the explosion of an underground test.

Yet all those earth-moving preparations could be a Pyongyang ruse. Remember the huge underground cavern that the Clinton administration considered to be part of North Korea’s nuclear threat? Pyongyang received a lot of aid in return for permitting a U.S. inspection, which discovered that the cavern was completely empty.

The North Koreans would probably like nothing better than to once again prove American intelligence wrong by first sending misleading signals, and then showing that nothing was there. Conversely, having completely missed the signs in 1998 that India and Pakistan were about to conduct nuclear tests, American intelligence could now be overcompensating for that failure.

There are of course disincentives for Kim. He cannot be sure how neighboring nations will react to any nuclear tests. At a time when Pyongyang is significantly increasing its still modest amount of trade with Russia, China and South Korea, it may not want to risk yet another economic setback. The North Koreans are heavily indebted to Beijing for food and fuel aid, and may fear that, after a nuclear test, China might reverse itself and end this source of sustenance.

Yet the reasons why a North Korean nuclear test will probably take place, any day now, are much more compelling. The fact that the North Koreans recently unloaded 8,000 fuel rods from the Yongbyon reactor is suggestive.

Had the North Koreans waited another year, the yield of weapons-grade plutonium from those rods would have been much greater. To do so now, and accept a lesser yield, could indicate a degree of political impatience on Kim’s part as he hurries to replenish his limited stock of weapons-grade plutonium, before exploding part of it.

Any fears Pyongyang has of Chinese pressure to prevent a test appear to be groundless even though the Americans have asked Beijing to apply it. Spokesman Liu Jianchao has rejected any thought of sanctions if North Korea conducts a test, as China “is not in favor of exerting pressure or imposing sanctions on North Korea. We believe that such measures are not necessarily effective.”

Perhaps the best example of China’s contrary view came May 11 when the banner story in the China Daily urged direct contact between the U.S. and North Korea as the best way to solve the nuclear impasse — the very policy option Bush has consistently rejected.

Since the North Koreans must know of these Sino-American differences by now, a nuclear test may recommend itself as a way of increasing a Sino-American rift.

Yet the more compelling reason a North Korean nuclear test is probably inevitable is that it is the only way to make its long-standing nuclear diplomacy credible, and to ensure that North Korea is taken seriously by otherwise hostile states. Kim almost certainly notes that India and Pakistan have been taken much more seriously by the U.S. since their 1998 nuclear tests.

Above all, a nuclear North Korea fits Kim’s vision of realpolitik on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang has steadily pursued nuclear development since the Eisenhower administration used the nuclear threat to secure Russian and Chinese compliance with a Korean armistice in 1953, thereby depriving the Kim Dynasty of any chance of establishing one Korea under its rule during the last 52 years.

At the very least, Kim believes that the undisputed advent of a nuclear North Korea will establish a better balance of power with an economically stronger but politically deferential South Korea.

Kim believes that once he has conclusively demonstrated that he possesses nuclear capability, the U.S. and Japan, and even China, will be far more respectful, fearing that he may place an atomic warhead on top of his intermediate-range as well as his intercontinental, ballistic missiles.

While a nuclear test explosion may make sense from Kim’s point of view, it seems unlikely to enhance the long-term stability and prosperity of East Asia.

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