SEOUL — For people with the unenviable task of deciphering what is regarded as one of the world's most impenetrable countries, the question of the moment is: How far will North Korea go?
Until a few days ago, the conventional wisdom here was that the foundering Communist government was engaged in elaborate bluff over its nuclear arms program designed to pull the United States into a dialogue and extract more aid from Washington. After all, the North Koreans are famous for an idiosyncratic negotiating style in which they try to solve a crisis by creating another one.
But their decision Friday to expel U.N. nuclear inspectors and their declaration that they intend to reopen a lab where plutonium can be reprocessed for use in weapons suggests that they are deadly serious about making an atomic bomb.
"They have a multi-pronged approach. Their initial hope is to negotiate with the United States, but if that doesn't work or if the negotiations go badly and things escalate, they will become a nuclear power," said Kim Tae Woo, an arms control expert with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
The speed at which the government in Pyongyang is plowing ahead with its nuclear program has astonished even veteran North Korea watchers. From the time the North Koreans declared their intention to restart the program, Dec. 12, only 10 days elapsed before they removed U.N. seals and disabled surveillance cameras that had been in place to enforce a freeze agreed to eight years ago. Four days later, they were seen loading fresh fuel rods into their only completed nuclear reactor, a 5-megawatt, Soviet-designed plant in Yongbyon, a secretive nuclear complex 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital.
On Friday, North Korea notified the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency that it was booting out inspectors monitoring the freeze, and on Saturday it declared the expulsion would take place Tuesday -- the earliest possible date, since there are only two flights weekly out of North Korea.
"They are working at extreme speeds. There is no reason to believe that the North Koreans will give the United States the luxury of time. If they waited, they feel they would be strung out and ignored and that they would be assumed to be too chicken to cross the lines," said Peter Hayes, head of the Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, which specializes in energy issues in North Korea.
The North Koreans' admission in October to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly that they had a plan to secretly enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons was cause for consternation, but not undue alarm because uranium enrichment -- which requires thousands of gas centrifuges -- is a slow, painstaking process.
Their decision to reopen the 5-megawatt reactor was more troubling, but again not cause for panic because the reactor will take at least a few months to restart and at least another year before its fuel rods could be used for bomb making.
The real crisis -- and one which could be only a few days in the making -- is the reopening of a chemical reprocessing plant whose sole function is to extract weapons-grade plutonium out of fuel rods from the reactor.
North Korea already has about 8,000 spent fuel rods containing highly radioactive material ideal for that purpose. Under the 1994 deal that froze Pyongyang's nuclear program, the fuel rods were safely stored in a cooling pond under 24-hour surveillance by remote TV monitors and inspectors. But with the cameras disabled and the inspectors on their way out, there is little to stop North Koreans from taking the next step.
"To restart the 5-megawatt reactor will create enough alarm.... But if they try to reprocess the spent fuel, that will create a very serious crisis," said Chun Yung Woo, an officer in South Korea's Foreign Ministry.
Hayes agreed: "The real fast track for them is not the research reactor; that is just a game they are playing. The real fast track is to take out the fuel rods and put them in the reprocessing plant. If they do that, they are really calling a three-alarm fire."
Given the rapid pace of recent weeks, it appears likely that the North Koreans will go as far as they can to produce a nuclear bomb or perhaps to add to an existing arsenal. The CIA believes North Korea had already produced one or two nuclear weapons before the 1994 freeze, although it is unclear whether it has the technical know-how to mount them on a missile.
North Korea's long-range Taepodong missile can easily reach Japan -- as was terrifyingly evident in 1998 when Pyongyang test-fired one over Japanese territory. U.S. intelligence officials believe that North Korea is developing a multistage missile capable of reaching the United States.
"I don't think they are bluffing. They feel they are fighting for their lives, and if they are going to go down, they want to take everyone with them," said Cho Myong Chol, a North Korean economist who defected to South Korea.