Blast or bluff?
From Wolf Blitzer
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The North Korean nuclear weapons standoff has just escalated -- with reports the communist regime may be on the verge of testing a nuclear bomb. The fallout from that could be enormous.
U.S. intelligence officials have long suspected that North Korea already has enough nuclear material to build as many as six nuclear bombs. And last February, the regime publicly declared it was already a nuclear power.
In recent days, the head of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency publicly suggested that Kim Jong Il's regime may already have mastered the ability to place those bombs on the warheads of its missiles.
Some of those missiles are believed capable of reaching Alaska and perhaps even the West Coast of the United States.
But so far, U.S. officials say, North Korea has never actually tested a nuclear bomb.
Now, there's fear that could happen.
The New York Times says recent U.S. government satellite photos show ominous movement on the part of the North Koreans -- movement consistent with the construction of underground tunnels where such a test could occur.
"It would have disastrous political repercussions," says Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"I am afraid that this will throw back the whole North Korea file into yet again another worse situation than what we had in the last few years. It is getting from bad to worse, and the earlier we intervene to engage the North Koreans and the earlier we try to find a comprehensive solution, the better for everybody," ElBaradei says.
One immediate fear would be possible leakage from an underground nuclear test in North Korea. Some experts fear that could spark an economic collapse of markets and massive evacuations in neighboring countries.
"That could set off real panic in northeast Asia. Certainly in Seoul businesses will worry; in Tokyo, where radioactive fallout from a nuclear test could drift, there will be deep concerns," says David Ignatius, associate editor of the Washington Post.
"I am not sure how much environmental impact it could have in terms of radiological fallout so I do hope that the North Koreans would reconsider such a reckless, reckless step," ElBaradei says.
Some analysts suggest Kim is bluffing -- trying to raise the stakes in order to win more economic and political concessions from the United States and its friends in the region -- especially South Korea and Japan.
Former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright says, "Just because they move material back in, or move material in, you really don't know what's going on. North Koreans tunnel everywhere and they build lots of things inside those tunnel complexes."