By Jill Dougherty
North Korea's so-called "Leap Day" agreement with the United States to suspend its nuclear-weapon and long-range missile testing was dead in the water even before the North's dud rocket splashed into the ocean last week.
Tuesday Pyongyang made it official, blaming Washington for "hatching all sorts of dastardly tricks to prevent the peaceful nature of the (Democratic People's Republic of Korea's) satellite launch from being confirmed objectively" and imposing on the U.N. Security Council "its brigandish demand that the DPRK should not be allowed to launch even a satellite for peaceful purposes."
"We have thus become able to take necessary retaliatory measures, free from the agreement," the government news agency KCNA announced, quoting the Foreign Ministry. "The U.S. will be held wholly accountable for all the ensuing consequences."
Now, U.S. officials are waiting for the other shoe to drop: Will North Korea break the other part of that agreement and carry out a nuclear test?
"That," a senior administration official told CNN, "is the 64-thousand-dollar question."
Most conventional wisdom, this official says, "holds a blast is in the offing." But, the official cautions, that is all it is -
conventional wisdom - and "there are no definitive telltale indicators the North is readying a nuclear test."
Everyone believes it will happen, the official said, but each person seems to have a different opinion about when it might occur.
Asked at the State Department's daily briefing Tuesday whether there is any indication the North might be laying the groundwork for a nuclear test, deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters, "Frankly, it's very difficult to say. It's a very opaque regime."
He added, "We parse out their public comments. We also know that in the past, as we've said, there's been this pattern of bad behavior."
The senior administration official, speaking on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, said the choice of words by North Korea counts.
"Those who parse Pyongyang's statements closely point out that this one threatens 'necessary retaliatory measures,' whereas in 2009 they said they would 'strengthen' its 'nuclear deterrent in every way,' and in 2006 they said they would take 'strong physical actions.' So it could be they are just beginning the process of cranking up their bellicosity," the official observed.
In April 2009, North Korea unsuccessfully launched a three-stage rocket, and then, on May 25, detonated an underground nuclear device. In October 2006, Pyongyang carried out its first nuclear test. Those followed two rounds of missile tests on July 4-5, including short, medium and long-range missiles.
When the North fired off its missile this month, the United States suspended food aid that was part of the Leap Day deal, a fact the North notes sullenly in its Tuesday statement: "No sooner had the DPRK's plan for satellite launch been announced than the U.S. suspended the process for the provision of food pursuant to the DPRK-U.S. agreement under that pretext."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday the North Koreans only have themselves to blame.
"They need to take a hard look at their policies, stop the provocative action, open to the rest of the world, work to educate their people, feed their people, put their people first ahead of their ambitions to be a nuclear power, and rejoin the international community," Clinton said in a news conference in Brazil.
Although Pyongyang singles out the United States, the U.N. Security Council on Monday condemned the North's rocket launch and warned that if it conducted another long-range missile test or a nuclear weapons test, the council would take further action.
The senior administration official argued that "North Korea's self-inflicted quarrel is increasingly with the whole world, not just the United States."
"They are struggling to tag us as the devil making them test a nuclear device," the official said, "when the truth is they have almost certainly been planning a nuclear test for some time, in order to continue to master the technology."
Meanwhile, North Korea's Foreign Ministry claimed that "peace is very dear for us but the dignity of the nation and the sovereignty of the country are dearer for us."