SINGAPORE — Will North Korea be the Obama administration’s first Asian crisis? Pyongyang has recently been cranking up its bellicose rhetoric, declaring that it would maintain its “status as a nuclear weapons state” and “smash” South Korea’s government in an “all-out confrontation” for tying aid to disarmament.

Of course, this is vintage North Korean saber-rattling and a tactic it has often used in the past. But is it designed this time especially to raise the stakes and improve Pyongyang’s bargaining leverage as it prepares to open negotiations with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama?

Or does it represent a defiant resetting of the North’s negotiating terms, based on its determination to keep nuclear arms until the regime feels secure?

After the latest of a series of visits to North Korea, Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said in Seoul on Jan. 17 that senior North Korean officials had told him enough plutonium for four or five nuclear bombs has been “weaponized.” He said the officials had not defined what “weaponized” meant, but the implication was that they had built nuclear arms.

If this is not a bluff, it would mean that Pyongyang plans to hold onto nuclear weapons despite an agreement it signed with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States in 2005 in which it promised to abandon them in exchange for economic and political incentives.

This deal was worked out in the framework of the six-party negotiations chaired by China. They have made only fitful progress and stalled toward the end of last year. Some analysts concluded that Pyongyang was hoping for a better deal from Obama than it could get from the outgoing Bush administration.

There is no sign of this happening. The U.S., under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, insisted that North Korea give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons before Washington would agree to diplomatic ties.

In her Senate confirmation this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Obama administration would maintain this position. She also indicated that diplomatic relations would not be established with North Korea until it ended serious human rights abuses and a clandestine uranium-enrichment program, which the U.S. alleges has been run in parallel with its more advanced plutonium program to make nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang denies such activity. But outgoing U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley told the Financial Times in an interview published Jan. 19: “We strongly believe that there is an undetermined amount of highly enriched uranium in North Korea.”

He said the material, which can be used to make the fissile core of nuclear bombs, had either been produced in the North or imported, adding that “either way, it has to be explained.”

Meanwhile, William Lynn, chosen by Obama to be deputy defense secretary, declared at his confirmation hearing that North Korea posed a serious threat to the U.S. and rest of the world through its ballistic missiles, nuclear and other deadly weapons programs, and its “proliferation of associated technologies, materials and systems.”

The U.S. has clearly not blinked in the face of North Korean threats. However, Pyongyang may have bought sufficient time, in dragging out the six-party talks, to make nuclear warheads that are small enough to fit on the cones of some of its missile arsenal.

For more than a year, the U.S., Japanese and South Korean intelligence communities have been worried that North Korean scientists and engineers were developing techniques to do this. The North’s nuclear-tipped missiles — many of which are mobile and can be hidden, moved around and fired quickly — could then strike South Korea and Japan, as well as U.S. forces based in both countries.

North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion in October 2006. Although the test appeared only partially successful, the head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Maples, told Congress last February that North Korea could have stockpiled several plutonium-based nuclear weapons and “may be able to successfully mate a nuclear warhead to a mobile ballistic missile.”

Analysts say North Korea has deployed about 800 truck-mounted ballistic missiles, with most in underground facilities ready to move. Several hundred of these missiles could reach as far as Tokyo. Gen. Burwell Bell, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, warned in July that the North was upgrading its arsenal to make the missiles more mobile and easier to launch.

A solid-fuel missile, the KN-02, was successfully flight-tested by North Korea in 2005, according to South Korean and U.S. military officials. They said the KN-02 appears very accurate, has a range of 120 kilometers and could carry a 500-kg warhead. While other North Korean short- and medium-range missiles may remain liquid-fueled, they are still mobile.

North Korea has outlined a much harder negotiating line recently. It said on Jan. 17 that normal relations with the U.S. would not be enough to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons. Instead, its “status as a nuclear weapons state” would be maintained as long as there was a nuclear threat from the U.S.

Pyongyang said in a statement Jan. 13 that ending this threat meant removing South Korea from the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, introducing a verification mechanism to ensure that no U.S. nuclear weapons were deployed in or pass through South Korea, and simultaneous nuclear disarmament talks among “all nuclear states,” including itself.

Is this nothing more than a prelude to the resumption of talks that started in 2003? Quite possibly. But the nuclear backdrop to this political psycho-drama is more menacing than ever.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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