Shockwaves continue to emanate from the Korean peninsula following North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests. The real significance of Pyongyang's decision to proceed with a second nuclear test is not the explosion itself, but rather the transparency of North Korean intentions. Its move signals an effort to further enhance North Korea's nuclear capabilities, and may serve to bolster domestic support for Kim Jong-Il’s atrocious regime, the real objective being the preservation of a political system that South Korea should have terminated the day after Moscow abandoned Lenin and Marx.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the U.S. wants North Korea to return to the stalled six-party disarmament negotiations (including also South Korea, China, Russia and Japan), but the Obama administration also indicated that a "strong, unified" message must be sent to North Korea that its "belligerent" actions have consequences.

The North Korean crisis, largely unforeseen by the American administration, adds up to a formidable challenge at a time when its energies are being consumed by Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. But America seems unprepared to meet this new challenge. Strong criticism of the current administration came from former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who said that President Barack Obama should take a stronger hand in punishing North Korea and boost U.S. military spending. Romney, speaking at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, said that Obama's slashing of the nation's ballistic missile defence system was a "grave miscalculation" that puts America at risk, and that Obama cannot continue expanding government while cutting defence spending. He added: "Arrogant, delusional tyrants can't be stopped by earnest words and furrowed brows. Action - strong bold action - coming from a position of strength and determination, is the only effective deterrent."

This is indeed a dangerous crisis, considering the deep political lack of certitude within the small Asian nation. In particular Kim Jong-Il’s health appears to be rapidly deteriorating and manoeuvres for his succession are under way. The designated heir is his younger son Kim-Jong-Un, perhaps after a period in which his brother-in-law, Jang Seong-Taek, would serve as a regent. Concerning the dictator’s health, he seems to suffer from diabetes and last summer was hit by a stroke. Also, in his latest TV appearences, he looked thinner and fatigued, his left arm semi-rigid and with a swollen hand. He has survived many attempted coups and attempted assassinations; his health has faded.

The nuclear test and the test-firing of six short-range missiles must be therefore understood within the context of this internal struggle to extend the Kim dynasty’s rule for at least another generation. “The North Korean leadership cares only about internal matters, not external matters,” says Wendy R. Sherman, who coordinated the North Korea policy in the Clinton administration. “They care about external matters only insofar as it helps ensure the survival of the regime.”

According to intelligence sources, North Korea might also be soon ready to test-launch its most advanced missile, one capable of delivering a nuclear payload to Alaska -- a threat not felt by the U.S. since the end of the Cold War.

The American press outlined the uncertainties existing within the Obama Administration on how to cope with North Korea. ABC World News reported that "many experts believe there is still no consensus inside the Obama Administration on how to deal with North Korea and its leader," while the Washington Post wrote "Obama came into office saying he wanted to demonstrate that engagement with hostile nations is more effective than antagonism, but North Korea's nuclear test now leaves the young administration with critical choices about its response." The Politico calls the test "a setback for...Obama's goal of eliminating nuclear weapons," while CNN called the tests "a powerful new blow to...Obama's efforts to reach out to the communist nation."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned North Korea on Saturday that the United States would respond quickly if moves by North Korea threaten America or its Asian allies. Gates stressed that the administration must pursue diplomacy with U.S. allies in the region before it considered taking military action. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton telephoned the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers on Monday to get a tough U.N. condemnation of North Korea's missile and nuclear tests.

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