North Korea’s Nuclear Intentions, Out There for All to See

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FOR much of the nuclear age, nations that sought the ultimate weapon kept their intentions and test sites veiled in secrecy, hidden from public view and foreign governments. The first detonations by the United States and the Soviet Union were top secrets and India’s test in 1998 caught American intelligence agencies by surprise.

No more, or so it seems. North Korea all but yelled “look at me” in announcing that it plans to conduct its first nuclear test, which experts say might come at any time or perhaps never. “Shouting from the rooftops is new,” said Robert S. Norris, author of “Racing for the Bomb” (Steerforth Press, 2002). “It’s an unusual way to go about asserting your status as a member of the nuclear club.”

What lies behind this outbreak of atomic exhibitionism? While deciphering the intentions of one of the world’s most cryptic regimes seems next to impossible, analysts say likely factors include North Korea’s taste for bold propaganda as well as its awareness that new classes of satellite technology are making it increasingly hard to hide nuclear sites anyway.

In the bad old days of the cold war, nations that aspired to nuclear fearsomeness wrestled with a fundamental conflict. While seeking to project a terrifying image, they also wanted to keep many test details secret so adversaries would face greater difficulty in crafting potential countermeasures and knowing the exact dimensions of the threat.

“If it was a dud, you didn’t want to announce that it was a dud,” recalled Philip E. Coyle III, a former head of weapons testing at the Pentagon and former director of nuclear testing for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a weapon design center in California.

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