The brinkmanship that North Korea is renowned for has suddenly moved into explosive new territory with the detonation of a 10 to 20-kiloton nuclear blast measuring some 4.7 on the Richter scale. The crisis shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-il seeking to gauge the mettle of US president Barack Obama as well as cement a leadership succession plan for what appears his impending stand-down as the country's dictator.The latest test, as well as three short-range missile tests, follow a long-range ballistic missile test in early April that was widely believed a disguised nuclear missile test. But it is the massive expansion in payload of the new underground nuclear test - up exponentially on North Korea's October 2006 blast of 0.5 to 1 kiloton - that is causing the most distress. That and the belief by analysts that North Korea's plutonium stocks are sufficient for it to arm between six and 12 small nuclear bombs.
Past tests have been used as bargaining chips to attract foreign aid and economic concessions for his starving country. This time, however, it seems domestic politics - and a hawkish administration biting sharply at his heels - are driving the dictator's agenda. North Korea has time and again proved itself a dangerous and recalcitrant state. A rogue state? Yes and one that appears more than happy, and well-equipped, to wreak untold misery on innocents.
The question for President Obama and for Gordon Brown is not if they should be respond but how.