North Korea announced Monday that it conducted another nuclear test, a surprise move certain to further isolate Kim Jong-il's increasingly unpredictable regime.
News of the test, the second conducted by North Korea, came in a statement by the official Korean Central News Agency. "According to the demand of our scientists and technicians, our republic has successfully conducted another underground nuclear test on May 25 ... as part of measures to strengthen its nuclear power in self-defense," the report said.
North Korea warned last month that it would conduct another nuclear test, allegedly to protest a rather mild rebuke from the United Nations Security Council following an April 5 "satellite launch" by Pyongyang that the United States, South Korea and Japan interpreted as a camouflaged test of its ballistic missile system.
Despite the warning, few expected another detonation so soon. While the U.S. State Department said it could not immediately confirm whether a nuclear explosion had taken place, seismologists from several countries detected a 4.7-magnitude "earthquake" in northeastern North Korea shortly before Pyongyang announced it had conducted the test. The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake, measured at a depth of 10 kilometres underground, occurred 70 kilometres northwest of the city of Kimchaek.
"This came unexpectedly quickly. But North Korea has been seeking ways to pressure the United States and South Korea to open up dialogue with them," Xu Guangyu, a researcher with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told Reuters. "North Korea's strategic objective hasn't changed. That objective is to win the attention of the Obama administration, to push the North Korea issue up the agenda."
Several analysts speculated that North Korea's stunning move could lose it the diplomatic protection it has enjoyed from China and Russia, since neither appeared to have been consulted before the test.
The provocative test could also strengthen hawks in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, as initial data appeared to show that the detonation was more powerful than a previous test in October, 2006, that was seen as only partly successful because of its low yield.
The nuclear brinksmanship also raises the question of who is really in charge in Pyongyang. Mr. Kim has made just one public appearance - at which he looked extremely frail and made no public remarks - since suffering a reported stroke last year.