North Korea shocked the international community when it claimed to have detonated a nuclear device in what could be a possible precursor to a fully developed nuclear weapons program. The tests came within months of the dramatic test-launching of seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong, over the Sea of Japan.
Poverty and the ill-gotten gains of long years of communism finally got to the regime which disregarded all notes of caution emanating from the Western world, South Korea and Japan. Such was the measure of disbelief at N Korea's action that even China, otherwise a vocal supporter, termed the nuke test a "brazen act".
One wonders what could have been the immediate provocation of the North's action, which has been threatening with a test for quite some time now? Was it the imminent announcement of South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon as the Secretary General of the UN?
Unlikely. While the post carries tremendous weight in the international arena, claiming that its occupying by the opposing camp would provoke the North to "cross the Rubicon", as it were, would be stretching logic too far.
Another, more likely explanation is doing the rounds of international diplomacy these days. To rein in the North's brinkmanship, the US had looked the other way even as the North involved itself with money laundering and other illegal financial transactions. That seemed to be changing in recent days.
The Bush administration was increasingly bringing pressure to bear upon US banks to stop illegal transfer of money. There were reports that the US government might impose sanctions against banks that transact with N Korean firms and thus, unwittingly perhaps, aid in the floating of fake US banknotes, known as super dollars.
This is widely held to be the immediate provocation for the tests. Behind closed doors, US officials admit that Kim Jong-il's reclusive regime would not have upped the ante had it not been for the shrill voices emanating out of Washington.
President Bush, on his part, shot down the military route for the time being. His Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice made all the right noises about approaching the UN, where non-military sanctions against the North have been imposed.
At best, the US attitude appears like the perfect dress rehearsal for the military option ultimately. Till then, it won't be a bad idea to buy time by humouring the UN.