North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons, which the United States believes could lead to an imminent test, is driven by genuine fear of US attack as well as diplomatic brinkmanship, analysts say.
North Koreans are taught from the cradle that the United States is a brutal imperialist power determined to crush their workers' paradise with a nuclear strike at the earliest opportunity.
Paranoia has its historical roots.
North Korea has already fought one war against US forces and during the 1950-53 Korean War Washington threatened repeatedly to use nuclear weapons before settling for conventional carpet bombing.
South Koreans, US allies for more than 50 years, worry aloud that Washington will seek to end the current standoff with a preemptive surgical strike.
"So you can imagine that North Koreans must worry 10 times more," said Peter Beck, director of the North East Asia Project at the International Crisis Group.
Over the decades, nuclear weapons, which North Korea has been seeking since the 1950s, were seen in Pyongyang as the ultimate guarantee of the Stalinist regime's survival.
Yet at the same time, North Korea, which has never had qualms about promoting contradictory policies, has adopted with an easy sleight of hand the conflicting position that it would give up its nuclear weapons if the price was right.
"North Korea understands the use of leverage," said Jun Bong-Geum, director of the Seoul-based Institute for Peace and Cooperation. "The may want nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip. Or they may just want the weapons."
Little hard intelligence emerges from one of the world's most isolated regimes where the media and people are tightly controlled.
US officials say they have detected signs that preparations are under way for a nuclear test, but they also say they have no hard evidence on when a test might take place. Pyongyang has strongly denied the US claims.
"No-one can quite fathom what Kim Jong Il and his regime have in mind," said Beck. "And I think this is by design. He is playing a game of nuclear poker.
"Washington and many other players wonder whether he is playing with a full deck. But I think he is, and I think he knows that the best strategy is to keep everyone guessing."
North Korea's leadership viewed the US-led attack on Baghdad as a dry-run for an attack on their own country, according to official media reports from North Korea. The reports reasoned that it was Saddam Hussein's failure to equip himself with nuclear weapons, rather than his drive to acquire them, that triggered his downfall.
In a statement released on April 18, 2003, the month after the "shock and awe" assault on Baghdad, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman announced the country was reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods, allowing it to produce up to six nuclear bombs.
"The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent force," he said.
For North Korea, Pakistan may be seen as the model to follow, a country that responded to a perceived outside threat by securing nuclear weapons.
Though Pakistan was condemned following its first nuclear test in 1998, geopolitical realities emerging following the September 11, 2001, attacks and the US-led 'war of terror' have ensured a welcome back into the fold.
Doubts about North Korea's nuclear intentions remain.
Once widely viewed as a bargaining chip, some analysts are turning to the view that the bankrupt Stalinist state sees the possession of nuclear weapons as more valuable than the diplomatic and economic benefits that would flow if it surrendered them.
And it is far from clear what price, if any, the international community will extract from North Korea for going nuclear.
Jun, a former advisor to South Korea's minister of unification, who handles Seoul's relations with Pyongyang, says that North Korea probably does want the bomb, but would reverse course if the price was right, or if the penalties were too high.
"Of course they are going nuclear, but at the same time they are saying 'why don't you do something about it and try and stop us," he said.
The United States says that Pyongyang will lose friends and become even more isolated as a result of possessing nuclear weapons.
However, many analysts believe that China, Pyongyang's main backer, will continue to prop up the regime and resist sanctions even if North Korea tests a nuclear weapon, while Seoul will have to find some way to engage its neighbour, with or without nuclear weapons.
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UN Nuclear Chief Says North Korea Has Close To Six Nukes
Washington (AFP) May 08, 2005
The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that North Korea has close to six nuclear weapons, the UN nuclear watchdog's chief said Sunday.
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