SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea's nuclear agitations follow a well-worn route. It starts with a long-range rocket launch. The United Nations punishes the act with sanctions. And Pyongyang responds by conducting a nuclear test.
It happened in 2006, and again in 2009. With the U.N. leveling new sanctions, the world is about to find out whether North Korea's young new leader will detonate an atomic bomb, or step away from the path his father laid.
The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt a resolution, the third of its kind since 2006, condemning a North Korean rocket launch as a violation of banned missile activity. North Korea's Foreign Ministry swiftly rejected the move early Wednesday, maintaining that the launch was a peaceful bid to explore space and accusing the U.S. of "hostile" intent in leading the push for punishment.
In the face of what it considers to be a U.S. threat, North Korea "will take steps for physical counteraction to bolster the military capabilities for self-defense, including the nuclear deterrence, both qualitatively and quantitatively," the ministry warned in a statement.
Analysts say the wording hints at a nuclear test. In 2006 and 2009, North Korea responded to similar Security Council punishment by detonating devices underground, which experts say is a key step in the process of developing an atomic bomb small enough to mount on a long-range missile.
"Things are lining up to make a nuclear test likely," said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group. "There's a long-term pattern. The logic is to demonstrate your strength."
But this time, North Korea has a new leader, Kim Jong Un, who took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. How he will handle the standoff with the international community remains unclear.
While sending a satellite into space was his father's dying wish, the young Kim has focused less on defense, saying in a recent speech that "the building of an economic giant" is his country's most pressing task. He's also hinted at a desire to make a shift in foreign policy by saying publicly that he is open to reaching out to former foes.
At the same time, Kim has already thrown away one agreement with the United States by going ahead with a rocket launch in April, and further antagonized the international community with the launch that put North Korea's first satellite into space last month.
It would be burdensome to order a nuclear test that would risk additional sanctions at a time when Kim wants to revive the economy, said Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean Studies at Seoul's Dongguk University. He said that with President Barack Obama starting a second term and a new South Korean government taking office next month, Kim will be watching to see how their foreign policies toward North Korea take shape before making any big moves.
A nuclear test could also strain Pyongyang's relationship with Beijing. China, North Korea's main ally and traditional protector, broke form in agreeing to the binding Security Council resolution and an expansion of sanctions.
The Security Council resolution demands that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program in a "complete, verifiable and irreversible manner," and orders the regime to cease rocket launches. The binding resolution orders the freeze of more North Korean assets, including the space agency, and imposes a travel ban on four more officials.
China opposed tougher sanctions, and analysts said it is continuing to protect its ally.
"China is striking a balance here. It wants to punish North Korea for the latest launch and tell it not to undertake a new ballistic missile launch," said Shen Dingli, a regional security expert and director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University. "But it doesn't want to put unbearable pressure on Pyongyang."
There was no indication Wednesday of an imminent nuclear test. However, satellite photos taken last month at North Korea's underground nuclear test site in Punggye-ri in the far northeast showed continued activity that suggested a state of readiness even in winter, according to analysis by 38 North, a North Korea website affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.
Last month's rocket launch has been celebrated as a success in North Korea, and the scientists involved have been treated like heroes. Kim Jong Un cited the launch in his New Year's Day speech laying out North Korea's main policies and goals for the upcoming year, and banners hailing the launch are posted on buildings across the capital.
Washington and others consider the rocket launches covert tests of ballistic missile technology since satellite launches and long-range missile launches have similar firing mechanisms. At a military parade last April, North Korea showed off what appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Though it insists its efforts to launch a satellite are peaceful, North Korea also claims the right to build nuclear weapons as a defense against the United States, which stations more than 28,000 troops in South Korea. The adversaries fought in the three-year Korean War, which ended in a truce in 1953 and left the Korean Peninsula divided by the world's most heavily fortified demilitarized zone.
North Korea has enough weaponized plutonium for about four to eight bombs, according to nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who visited North Korea's nuclear complex in 2010. In 2009, Pyongyang also declared that it would begin enriching uranium, which would give North Korea a second way to make atomic weapons.
For years, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. negotiated with North Korea to offer aid in return for disarmament. North Korea walked away from those talks after U.N. sanctions in 2009.
Later, Pyongyang indicated its readiness to resume discussing disarmament. In February 2012, it negotiated a deal with Washington to place a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in exchange for food aid.
That deal fell apart when North Korea unsuccessfully launched a long-range rocket in April that it insisted did not constitute a missile test and thus was not a banned activity.
In July, North Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a memorandum declaring that it felt forced to "completely re-examine the nuclear issue due to the continued U.S. hostile policy" toward Pyongyang. On Wednesday, the ministry said talks about disarmament are off the table.
It may be a non-nuclear issue that returns North Korea and the U.S. to negotiations.
A U.S. citizen is in North Korean custody after being arrested in the northeastern city of Rason in November, according to state media. Kenneth Bae is accused of committing "hostile" acts against the regime.
Similarly, in 2009, two American journalists were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for committing "crimes against the state." That August, three months after the nuclear test, former President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to negotiate their release, a visit that provided an opening for dialogue between the foes.
Kim Jong Un, like his father, appears to be resorting to nuclear threats to deal with friction from the outside world, Pinkston said.
"It's more of the same — not that much change in the overall grand strategy and orientation," he said.
AP writers Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations, Hyung-jin Kim and Sam Kim in Seoul, and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
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