SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has threatened to quit nuclear talks and restart its plant that makes plutonium if it is punished for launching a long-range rocket on Sunday that many powers saw as a disguised ballistic missile test.
Following are some questions and answers on what North Korea, one of the world’s most unpredictable countries, may do next.
North Korea is betting it will not suffer serious international sanction for the launch, analysts said. The U.N. Security Council is divided on a response, which probably figured into the North’s calculations to fire the rocket.
The North, which has a history of using its military threat to squeeze concessions from major powers, would unleash its trademark rhetoric in response to any punishment but could also increase tensions through further provocative acts.
North Korea may boycott six-way nuclear disarmament talks if it is punished. It has done this several times before. Since there is little momentum at present to resume talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, a boycott might not cause much damage to the often-delayed process that began in 2003.
A much more provocative move would be if North Korea restarted its Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant, which was being dismantled under a disarmament-for-aid deal it reached with the five powers in 2005.
The North has mostly implemented steps meant to put the plant out of business for at least a year. But proliferation experts said it may look to restart the facility that separates arms-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods. It may take as little as three months to resume operations at this facility, they said.
Under the disablement deal, North Korea has unloaded irradiated fuel rods from its aging reactor at Yongbyon for cooling. Experts said these rods could eventually produce enough plutonium for one more nuclear bomb, adding to the stock of material that could already make six to eight nuclear bombs.
North Korea’s propaganda has used the missile launch to herald the country’s technical achievements and rally national pride. This may mean there is little need at present for a nuclear test in order to rally the masses behind leader Kim Jong-il’s “military first” doctrine.
But experts said since the North’s only nuclear test in October 2006 was just a partial success, another is inevitable because Pyongyang needs one to see if it has built a better bomb design.
Another nuclear test would be one of the biggest cards North Korea could play. It would be done at a time to garner maximum political effect, analysts said.
Sunday’s test of the Taepodong-2 missile was expensive and the North is poor. It is unlikely to fire another soon due to the high cost.
Since the United Nations has been debating whether to punish North Korea for violating 2006 resolutions that forbid it from further ballistic missile testing, Pyongyang will likely refrain from testing its mid-range ballistic missiles because that would undermine its argument that Sunday’s launch was for the peaceful purpose of putting a satellite into orbit.
It may, however, test-fire short-range missiles to raise tension with South Korea. The North has said it would see Seoul’s plan to join a U.S. initiative to halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as an act of war and may feel it needs to raise tension with its rich neighbor in response.
The sputtering six-party talks are likely headed for more delay. The missile launch changed the dynamics by increasing the North’s leverage in the discussions, experts said, which could lead Pyongyang to try to water down some existing obligations and resist calls from the five dialogue partners to agree to a nuclear inspection system, if it shows up at all.
North Korea may also try to set up separate, bilateral missile talks with the United States, as it did after sending a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan in 1998, in an attempt to win concessions from new U.S. President Barack Obama and isolate Washington from allies South Korea and Japan.
Editing by Dean Yates