North Korea might have detonated a mere four-kiloton nuclear device, one-fifth of the power of the atomic bomb that decimated Hiroshima and termed by some analysts as a puny explosion, but it has triggered tremors of fear around the world that will continue to reverberate for quite a while. Dear Leader Kim Jong-il opted to go in for an underground nuclear test on May 25 and raised the stakes in the years-long standoff with the US. He took another step towards brinkmanship soon after, as he renounced the Korean peninsula armistice of 1953 and launched several short-range missiles. For this attitude, Jong-il took the plea of Washington's increasing "hostility" towards North Korea. To recall the background: the already strained US-North Korean relations received a further jolt on April 5 when Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket claiming that it served as a vehicle for putting a communication satellite into the earth's orbit. As it insisted that the satellite was circling around the earth, Western experts maintained that nothing had entered the orbit. The US and South Korea accused Pyongyang of launching the rocket for the purpose of testing the delivery system for its long-range missile technology. They feared that ultimately it could mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that would reach the US. The US and its allies called the launch a violation of the UN resolution and defiance of international opinion. Washington's pressure for tougher sanctions by the United Nations Security Council followed. North Korea retaliated with expelling UN monitors and threatened to restart the plant that produces weapons-grade plutonium and set off a nuclear device that it finally did on May 25. The public everywhere in the world witnessed these moves by the maverick Kim with bated breath, not knowing what other plans he had up his sleeves. However, the equally perplexed governments, particularly the US and South Korea, were quick to respond with statements of condemnation. They gave no clue, though, as to what concrete measure they intend adopting. It is not clear, for instance, from the remarks of Defence Secretary Robert Gates that the US "will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state" what course of action his government wants to take to put this policy into effect. His declaration that the US "will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capacity to wreak destruction on any target in the region - or on us", perhaps, points to stiffening the already existing UN sanctions. Sanctions, of course, are always on the cards, but their invariable ineffectiveness in achieving the desired goal also constantly stares the world in the face. But then both China and Russia, veto-wielding powers at the UN Security Council, have been appealing for "calm" to all parties involved, and political observers are doubtful whether they would go along with the Western view of hardened sanctions. Besides, a body of opinion exists, which believes that "more sanctions and demonisation" of Pyongyang is not the way forward. It would rather create escalation of tensions and not capitulation. Interestingly, President Obama confined his reactions to the underground tests and missile launch as "a matter of grave concern to all nations...the danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants action by the international community". Stronger words, as the above paragraphs show, were left to his Secretary of Defence. It seems that beyond sanctions, pressure or persuasion nothing else is being visualised. Although Mr Gates "unequivocally" confirms the US commitment to the defence of South Korea and Japan, it does not visualise military strike without North Korea doing "something that requires it". "At this point" the North Korea's nuclear programme, he says, is not a direct military threat to the US. These observations clearly point to the helplessness of the US or, for that matter, any other country to put an end to its nuclear weapons programme. Thus, contrary to Mr Gates' firm declaration that the US "will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state", it is a nuclear weapons state. And the US acquiesces in it. Another course that has been followed for several years in an attempt to persuade Pyongyang to give up nuclear ambitions i.e. the six-party talks should be assumed to be already dead and buried. As the world condemned the April 5 launch of a long-range ballistic missile, the North Koreans reacted by declaring their withdrawal from the six-party talks and there is no indication that they would agree to resume negotiations in the present scenario. In any case, in the remote possibility that they are convened nothing is likely to come out of them. Speculations put down the current Pyongyang's nuclear defiance to an attempt at bargaining with the US and other countries involved in the six-party talks to get economic assistance from them in return for promises to wind up the nuclear programme. Some analysts thought that the flurry of activity reflecting military strength was guided by Pyongyang's internal political dynamics that were compelling the ailing Jong-il not to put off naming his successor till 2012, when the country celebrates the centenary of the birth of its founder Kim Il Sung, Jong-il's father. Latest reports from reliable sources within the official and media circles tend to confirm the succession assumption, as Jong-il nominates youngest son Kim Jong Un to hold the rein of power when he steps down on an unspecified date, most probably on the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party next October. But it would be nave to eliminate the factor of bargaining. Experience points to that direction. It is unlikely, though, that the US and others are taken in once again. E-mail: