World leaders condemned a North Korean nuclear test threat (Reuters Video), which Pyongyang claims is necessary in the face of U.S. hostility. A government statement did not disclose a date for what would be Pyongyang’s first known nuclear test, but said North Korea was compelled to follow through (Yonhap) with the test because of the “U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure.” Christopher Hill, the top U.S. State Deparment official on Asia-Pacific relations, gave Pyongyang a stern warning: “We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea, we are not going to accept it.” The White House said a test would threaten East Asian security and that the United States will work with the UN Security Council and Six-Party Talk members to oppose Pyongyang’s “provocative announcement.” In 2005, North Korea walked away from talks with the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea and has refused to return to the negotiating table because of U.S. financial restrictions, specifically a clampdown on Pyongyang’s alleged counterfeiting activities (NYT).
China and South Korea alerted Pyongyang that a test would hurt relations in the region, but Beijing also made an appeal for all relevant parties to resolve the latest standoff through dialogue. The test statement puts Washington in the position of either making concessions to Kim Jong-Il’s communist regime or taking a firm stand that could trigger an East Asian arms race (IHT). Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned testing would spark a harsh international response (Australian). Japan is the current president of the UN Security Council, with a special role in convening meetings. The Council in July passed a resolution banning the sale of missile parts to North Korea and demanding the country halt its missile program. A BBC timeline charts the nuclear standoff and breakdown in negotiations to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
In an interview with CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman, CFR Fellow Michael A. Levi says North Korea may be trying to ramp up the threat level after failed missile tests in July, and "a nuclear test is their only real option to step things up a notch." Levi also describes the timing of the test announcement as "unusual," given that it comes within days of the United States saying it will grant North Korea bilateral talks if Pyongyang agrees to return to the multilateral negotiating table (VOA). Washington and Pyongyang need to start talking or run the risk of finding “themselves on a collision course, with Seoul caught in the middle,” says an International Crisis Group report released after North Korea’s long-range missile testing in July. Tong Kim, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says confidence building is necessary to defuse the current standoff, but warns the growing distrust between Bush and Kim means improved relations are unlikely as long as Bush is in office (Korea Times). Some experts fault the Bush administration for not engaging in serious diplomacy with Pyongyang but others say North Korea is not a reliable negotiating partner.
Divisions in Bush administration policy on North Korea—one view espousing engagement, the other isolation—have aroused criticism from other members of the multiparty talks, says a Congressional Research Service report (PDF). Analysts David Albright and Paul Brannan of the Institute for Science and International Security estimate North Korea could likely “build a crude nuclear warhead” and has enough plutonium for between four and thirteen nuclear weapons (PDF). The Nuclear Threat Initiative provides a chronology of North Korea’s missile development program and maps of suspected nuclear enrichment sites.