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What does North Korea hope to gain by testing nuclear weapons? 

On May 25, North Korea flipped a radioactive bird at President Barack Obama when it exploded a nuclear device in an underground facility in the northeast part of the country.

The test site was not far from the spot where, in 2006, North Korea exploded a similarly frightening gizmo, described at the time by the Bush administration as a "nookyullar" device. North Korea is thought to be the only country on Earth to possess both a nuclear and a nookyullar device.

You may have noticed I’m using the word device rather than weapon to describe these North Korean explosive thingies. That’s because I was just listening to Selig Harrison, former Washington Post Northeast Asia bureau chief and current head of the Center for International Policy’s Asia Program, speaking on my favorite news radio show, KCRW-FM’s “To The Point.” (Yes, that was a shameless attempt to earn a KCRW tote bag.)

Harrison says there’s no evidence to suggest North Korea has the technical know-how to fire a nuclear device at anyone. Exploding a weapon underground in what essentially is a laboratory is very different from miniaturizing a weapon and mounting it atop a missile.

I’m not saying don’t be scared of North Korea. I’m just saying you should know precisely what it is you might be scared of. North Korea is still capable of firing enough conventional and chemical weapons to kill tens of thousands of people in Japan or South Korea. If you’re in range, be scared of that.

So why the heck is North Korea detonating nukes underground? Are they bored? Drunk? Was a North Korean nuclear scientist trying to impress a woman? “Hey, baby. Check this out.”

Honestly, it’s hard to say. North Korea is probably the most opaque society on Earth.

Here’s North Korea’s official explanation for the explosion, as published by the Korean Central News Agency, the country’s reliably kooky international propaganda organ:

“[T]he nuclear test was a grand undertaking to protect the supreme interests of [North Korea] and defend the dignity and sovereignty of the country and nation in face of the U.S. imperialists’ unabated threat to mount a preemptive nuclear attack and sanctions and pressure upon it.”

What does the statement tell us?

First, it tells us North Korea is desperately short on commas.

Secondly, it suggests North Korean leaders are deeply insecure.

Not insecure in the “Oh, gosh, my pee-pee is so tiny” sense (although, and this isn’t a joke, they do have a fleet of medium-range ballistic missiles called the No Dong).

I mean insecure in the sense that they’re convinced outsiders will take any opportunity to drive them out of power.

Remember, the Korean peninsula is divided into two countries: the commies up north and the (recently but not always) democrats down south.

South Korea is a U.S. ally. To keep it out of the hands of the Communist north, the U.S. fought the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, as well as airing the series “M*A*S*H" from 1972 to 1983. We keep 28,000 or so U.S. troops there now.

Also remember, since the mid-20th century, every country around North Korea has prospered. Japan, China and South Korea are economic superpowers.

North Korea, however, has languished. It’s a garrison state in which all social and economic activity is directed at propping up dictator Kim Jong-Il and his military.

North Korea’s dictatorship can’t provide prosperity for its people. It can’t even provide food. A 1999 CNN report suggested that up to 3 million North Koreans died of starvation or famine-related illness in the 1990s.

The regime knows that time and history are not on its side.

To prolong survival, they’re using the only weapon they have — which, coincidentally enough, is an actual weapon.

Exploding a nuke is North Korea’s way of saying, “Yoohoo, pay attention to me.” They’re hoping the U.S., Japan and China get scared enough to start sending North Korea more oil, coal, food and development aid, and maybe promise to normalize relations.

Like the chubby bully girl who used to punch me in the arm in second grade, North Korea’s aggression is really just a cry for help.
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