What's North Korea's Next Move? Perhaps a Nuclear Weapons Test

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North Korea appears poised to display its nuclear weapons capability with an underground test, say experts, in a bid to keep military tensions high and force a return to talks.

North Korea appears more likely now to stage another long-range missile test or underground nuclear explosion rather than attacking South Korean targets, according to security experts in South Korea.

"They're not going to do anything immediately," says Lee Jong- min, dean of Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies, "but I'm fairly convinced they'll conduct another nuclear test maybe early next year."

In crises stretching back to nuclear negotiations in the early 1990s, North Korea has put the Korean Peninsula into crisis mode before eventually coming to the table. While the US, South Korea, and Japan say they oppose a return to six-party talks, last held in Beijing in December 2008, another nuclear test or additional missile strikes - on the heels of the North's recent attacks - might be the North's way of forcing new negotiations.

"I don't think there's anything stopping North Korea now from going ahead with another nuclear test," says Mingi Hyun, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy. Neither South Korea nor the US, he says, "have given North Korea any reason to hold off" despite military exercises on land and sea since the deadly Nov. 23 North Korean attack on a South Korean island.

An influential South Korean think tank, the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS), came out with a report Friday suggesting "a possibility of North Korea carrying out its third nuclear test" for at least two reasons.

IFANS says the North wants "to seek improvement in its nuclear weapons production capability" and "keep military tension high" while promoting the status of leader Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as the North's next leader.

Analysts have been forecasting a nuclear test next spring ever since American physicist Siegfried Hecker led a delegation to North Korea in October and toured a uranium-enrichment facility at the North's nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang.

The facility represents a major step beyond North Korea's ongoing program for manufacturing nuclear devices with plutonium at their core. In October 2006 and again in May 2009, the North exploded plutonium devices underground, making it the world's ninth nuclear weapons state.

The North has yet to test a device made of highly enriched uranium, but is believed to be well on the way to acquiring the ability and the resources to do so. …