Pyongyang's nuclear test on Monday sparked condemnation as a breach of international law but opinions differ on why the test was conducted at this time and whether it says more about a transition of power than it signals to the world. Many experts believe North Korea's succession crisis was the primary impetus for the test, suggesting that the intended audience was domestic rather than the international community.
North Korea's nuclear challenge
Pyongyang's nuclear test on Monday sparked condemnation as a breach of international law but opinions differ on why the test was conducted at this time and whether it says more about a transition of power than it signals to the world. Many experts believe North Korea's succession crisis was the primary impetus for the test, suggesting that the intended audience was domestic rather than the international community. "When North Korea suddenly announced Monday that it had conducted a second nuclear test, the initial view across the region was that this had been yet another defiant gambit by the North to extract more concessions from Washington," The New York Times reported. "That has been the oft-repeated pattern in the past, and is likely to be one motivation now as well, say North Korea watchers. But this time around, North Korea's succession crisis is the primary impetus, many experts believe, suggesting that the audience for the test is its own population as much as the United States. "Monday's test is the culmination of a shift toward a more assertive foreign policy, which some analysts say seems to have begun not long after the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, is believed to have suffered a stroke in August. Speculation about a successor has focused on his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, which would continue the family dynasty to the third generation - one unique among Communist nations." The Chosun Ilbo said: "South Korean and US military authorities had been observing signs of North Korean preparations for another nuclear test in Kilju, North Hamgyong Province where it conducted the first in October 2006. "According to a source, the two countries monitored vehicle and personnel movements there through the US' KH-12 reconnaissance satellite. They also observed construction work to expand an underground mine, where it would conduct a nuclear test, and the erection of a building in a nearby area, a senior South Korean government official said. "A government official said, 'It was hard to find out exactly when it would be possible to conduct a nuclear test due to the difficulty of making predictions about an underground test. But we'd judged from early this month that since it made the threat in April, the North had finished preparations to conduct a test in the near future if it wanted.' " Sam Roggeveen, an Australian intelligence analyst pointed out: "sometimes a nuclear test is just a nuclear test. "In assessing the motives for any kind of military testing, it is useful to assume there is a military or technical need. When the Australian military conducts missile tests at Woomera, for instance, it wants to trial a piece of kit. "Nuclear tests belong in a different category, but given that North Korea's 2006 test was probably a fizzer (and Pyongyang's public statement after its test on Monday hinted this was the case) there is good reason to think it wanted to try again so it could improve their weapon design. "That's not to rule out that North Korea wanted to send a message of defiance to the United States and its allies. But this test should not be seen just as an elaborate performance for the benefit of foreigners - it is not always about us." With regard to the US response to North Korea, Paul Carroll from the Ploughshares Fund wrote: "There seem to be two responses being recommended to the president. One says 'tighten the screws' and punish bad behaviour. But we know that will not work with Pyongyang. It never has. For starters, China fears a collapse of North Korea more than a nuclear-armed neighbour. Thus, Beijing would not allow sanctions to risk the utter implosion of North Korea. "The other says 'move quickly with new offers to Pyongyang.' But this, too, has limitations and drawbacks - it is too reflexive and plays into a tactic of giving positive attention to provocative actions. What is needed is a longer-term view and patient attitude toward engagement with North Korea. "What President Obama needs to develop is a long-term policy of subtle and creative engagement that stays consistent, especially during difficult times. "For example, try an ongoing military-to-military dialogue to work on joint efforts such as MIA [missing in action] remains recovery, as has been done in the past. Or perhaps try exchange programmes with American universities that offer each nation's citizens a better understanding of the other as well as substantive academic pursuits. "In either case, the programmes need to be designed so that they cannot be held hostage to diplomatic ups and downs. This has been the case for humanitarian assistance to North Korea from the US and could serve as a model. "Too many carrots or sticks and too much back-and-forth depending on the latest events will not produce the stable diplomatic relationships that are necessary for success." In The Guardian, Simon Tisdall said: "Speculation about a shift in power at the top focuses on Kim's sons. The eldest, Kim Jong-nam, whose mother was Song Hye-rim, Kim's first mistress, is widely believed to have fallen out of favour with his father after he was arrested in Tokyo in 2001 while travelling on a false passport. Some South Korean observers have claimed that Kim regards his eldest son as effeminate and not tough enough to take the helm. "The second son, Kim Jong-chul, may also be a bit of a problem. Although he holds a middle rank in the military apparatus, his political profile is low. His interests may lie elsewhere. In 2006 he was reliably reported to have attended an Eric Clapton rock concert in Germany and possibly some football World Cup matches too. "That leaves the youngest son, Kim Jong-woon (also known as Jong-un). South Korean media claimed this year that the Great Leader had chosen his third son as his successor. This was supposedly because Kim the youngest, who received some of his education in Switzerland and reportedly speaks some foreign languages, was temperamentally 'just like his father', with a strong will, firm ideas and a fierce temper if challenged. "According to a leading expert on North Korea, the British academic Aidan Foster-Carter, a developing fight for supremacy is the most probable explanation for Pyongyang's aggressive behaviour. 'North Korea is snarling more. That suggests an internal power struggle,' Foster-Carter told a seminar at the Chatham House thinktank in London last week. 'The dog barks loudest when it's feeling vulnerable. And maybe it's safer to be a hardliner than a softliner when there's a power struggle going on.' " In The Times earlier this year, Richard Lloyd Parry reported: "According to Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese who worked as personal sushi chef to Kim Jong Il and knew both the young 'princes' well, it was obvious from his childhood that Jong Un would eventually take over from his father. 'The older brother, Jong Chul, had the warm heart of a girl,' he told The Times last night. 'The younger prince, Jong Un, was a boy of inner strength.' "As teenagers, the boys played basketball and, even after casual games among friends, Jong Un would coach his teammates and analyse the successes and failures of their matches. 'The first time I met him he was 7 years old, and he looked at me as if I was an evil Japanese who had done terrible things to Koreans in the war,' said Mr Fujimoto. 'I was impressed that even as a young boy he tried to analyse people he met.' "As a boy, Jong Un drove a Mercedes Benz with specially adapted pedals and seat around the grounds of Kim Jong Il's home. He liked Chinese food and sushi, especially squid and the finest cuts of tuna. He used to smoke Mr Fujimoto's menthol cigarettes. " 'If power is to be handed over then Jong Un is the best for it,' Mr Fujimoto said. 'He has superb physical gifts, is a big drinker and never admits defeat.' "