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North Korean leader seeks to solidify power, legitimacy

SEOUL -- North Korea's third nuclear test on Tuesday is expected to reinforce the power base of Kim Jong-un, one year after the young leader took over the communist dynasty.

The explosion, conducted just ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, flouted international warnings against any further detonation and prompted an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting in New York to formulate a stronger, more enforceable response.

It came merely three months after the regime successfully launched a long-range rocket, calling it a peaceful mission to send a satellite into orbit. The 15-member UNSC on Jan. 22 endorsed a resolution and tightened sanctions.

The blast marks Pyongyang's third test of atomic devices and the first under the Swiss-educated, 30-year-old ruler. Its previous rounds were in 2006 and 2009.

The latest test precedes the Feb. 16 birth of his late father, Kim Jong-il, who gave priority to his mantra of building a "strong, prosperous and great nation" during his 17-year rule.

The fledgling leadership appears to be seeking to augment power by carrying on the regime's nuclear ambitions through missile and nuclear tests.

For the ruling clique, foreign relations may well be compromised in order to accomplish domestic objectives and boost its legitimacy, experts say.

"Having declared a confrontation with the U.S., it will promote the nuclear test as a tool to guarantee its right to self-defense internally and to boost bargaining power externally in future negotiations," said Chin Hee-gwan, a unification studies professor at Inje University in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province.

Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute, said Kim will present the success of the rocket liftoff and atomic test as symbols of a "military powerhouse."

"He has apparently proven to be a confident commander-in-chief and loyal successor to his father. Now he has reason to push economic growth," he said.

The North is believed to own enough plutonium for about half a dozen fission bombs. It has apparently been enriching uranium to weapons grade, cashing in on its vast uranium reserves.

Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik said early this month that a new round of atomic tests could "constitute the final stage of its nuclear development," making way for technological progress required to miniaturize and lighten warheads to mount on missiles.

Outside, the detonation will likely fray the North's already frosty relations with the South and the U.S.

The two allies quickly condemned the test, calling it a breach of UNSC resolutions banning Pyongyang from any nuclear activity.

With less than two weeks left before her inauguration, President-elect Park Geun-hye faces daunting challenges in crafting an approach to the wayward neighbor.

The nuclear test also wreaked havoc on global hopes for Kim's perceived efforts to ease poverty and shore up the people's livelihoods. His major policy road map unveiled in August envisages a "prosperous country."

Since taking power, Kim has been challenging the military's iron grip, exposing the reclusive family to the public and retuning the state's economic strategy.

He has also placed economic specialists in powerful positions, while sacking or demoting hard-liners who championed his father's "military-first" policy.

Critics have called for fewer words and more action, however, with the North at the same time codifying its atomic-armed status and building up its nuclear arsenal.

"It's fair to say that most people probably didn't think that he would last a whole year," said Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Now he's swept out all the generals. He's got a wife. He's probably going to have a baby. He has launched successfully a satellite into orbit. I think in that sense it was he's done more than people thought a year ago," he told The Korea Herald in a recent interview

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