After North Korea's embarassing TD-2 missile failure in July, Pyongyang fell strangely silent, and the "Dear Leader" (Kim Jong-il) essentially vanished from public view. There is no doubt that both moves were carefully calcuated; any of North Korea's usual boasts or taunts after the TD-2 launch could be rebutted by western accounts of the missile failure, a reminder that Kim Jong-il's technology (so far) cannot sustain his global ambitions.
More recently, there has been speculation that North Korea is contemplating a nuclear test, a sure-fire device for refocusing world attention on the hermit kingdom, and generating more pressure for direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang. ABC News reported last week that U.S. intelligence has detected activity at a site in North Korea which may be connected to the nuclear program. While indications of a potential test remain vague, some of the preparations observed in North Korea are similar to those seen prior to nuclear tests in other countries, raising fears that Pyongyang is about to test one of its devices. North Korea is believed to have a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, or the components required to assemble such an arsenal. According to some estimates, Pyongyang may have developed its first nuclear weapon as early as the mid-1990s, but it has never tested a nuclear weapon.
But North Korea's desire to test a weapon--and confirm its status as a nuclear power--may be tempered by domestic concerns. Recent flooding has devastated Pyongyang's already-struggling agricultural sector. One recent USDA estimate indicates that severe flooding (the worst in more than 20 years) has cut North Korea's rice harvest by at least five percent, and the actual reduction may be much higher. Making matters worse, South Korea suspended food aid after the recent North Korean missile tests, eliminating a source of rice--and other staples--that the North has increasingly relied on to feed its population.
A nuclear test in the coming weeks would probably cause other donors to cut off food aid, creating more problems for Pyongyang. And while Kim Jong-il has demonstrated his willingness to let his people starve to achieve other goals, that choice may not be as easy as it was in years past. Anti-regime graffitti has been seen (and photographed) in Pyongyang over the past year, a remarkable event in a country that tolerates absolutely no internal dissent. The appearance of that graffitti suggests that Kim's hold on the populace may be slipping just a bit, and his stranglehold on power isn't what it once was. Additionally, there are recent reports that Kim has recently ordered the release of emergency food stockpiles and the revamping of food distribution systems, measures designed (in part) to placate the public and tamp down potential dissent.
Against that domestic backdrop, a North Korean nuclear test might not be as likely as some might think. But on the other hand, Kim may believe that such a provocative act is just the ticket to get the international community reengaged on his agenda. Afterall, Pyongyang's bad behavior has been rewarded before, most notably in the "Agreed To Framework" of 1994, which gave North Korea security assurances and fuel oil from the U.S. and a promise of nuclear reactors from South Korea, in exchange for a promised suspension of Pyongyang's nuclear program. And we all know what happened under that agreement.
If I had to guess, I'd say any North Korean nuclear test will be a mid-term, rather than short-term event. Kim can easily stretch his preparations out over a period of months, while gauging reaction from the west. If Washington and Seoul respond favorably to his saber-rattling, a nuclear test might not be required. On the other hand, if the U.S. and ROK take a harder line, Pyongyang can exacerbate the tensions (as required), to force some sort of reaction from his adversaries. Extending test preparations will also allow Kim to get a better feel for his domestic situation. If this year's harvest is as bad as expected--or worse--he can manipulate the situation to secure a resumption of food aid, by alternately playing the good guy or bad buy card.
One final note: since early July, there has apparently been a careful readjustment in North Korea's rehtorical blasts. Prior to the missile test, Pyonyang repeatedly emphasized its nuclear capbility; since then, there has been virtually no mention of its purported nuclear arsenal. The change in languge may be part of a run-up to a planned nuclear test; on the other hand, it could represent a deliberate softening on North Korea's part, aimed (in part) at securing a resumption of food aid before the onset of winter.