As evidence grew that Iraq was bluffing over its weapons of mass destruction, another member of President George Bush's "axis of evil" was brandishing the bomb.
North Korea claimed today that it had solved "all the technological matters" in using plutonium extracted from nuclear spent fuel rods to build atomic bombs.
The official news agency, KCNA did not elaborate, but it appeared to be saying that North Korea had no technical problems in reprocessing the rods and using plutonium for weapons purposes. North Korean statements are often vaguely worded in an apparent attempt to create uncertainty.
A North Korean minister declared yesterday that Pyongyang had now finished reprocessing a large batch of nuclear fuel rods, and was planning to strengthen its nuclear deterrent.
The rods are believed to be capable of producing enough plutonium to manufacture up to six nuclear bombs. Never before has North Korea made such an explicit claim of this kind and its timing could hardly have been more unwelcome for the White House.
The international community - from the United States and its allies to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the entire east Asia region - has become increasingly alarmed about the use that the North Koreans may make of 8,000 nuclear fuel rods stored at its secret complex at Yongbyon.
For eight years, the rods were locked away under the supervision of IAEA inspectors as part of a deal signed with the Clinton administration - the 1994 Framework Agreement.
But a year ago the agreement fell apart after Washington confronted the North Koreans with evidence that they were violating it by secretly enriching uranium, which could be used for nuclear bombs.
Anxious to ensure its survival before a superpower newly wedded to a doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, North Korea reacted with startling intensity. It threw out the IAEA inspectors, fired up a 5MW Soviet-era atomic reactor, broke the seals on the rods, and pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Long suspected by the Americans of having one, and possibly two, atomic bombs, it began openly to refer to its nuclear deterrent.
Its policy makers will have calculated that its latest manoeuvre is awkward for President Bush, not least because it enables his opponents to argue that he launched a war against a rogue nation, Iraq, in the name of scrapping weapons of mass destruction that appear not to exist, while advocating a diplomatic solution in a dispute with another state that is thought to have the bomb, and seems increasingly equipped to make more.
But yesterday's developments were chiefly part of a diplomatic cat-and-mouse game between Washington and Pyongyang over whether the North Koreans will join the second round of six-nation talks about the crisis, scheduled for next month in Beijing.
Analysts said the latest move was another attempt to put pressure on the US to offer concessions. It was seen as a sign that Pyongyang - which has been blowing hot and cold on the talks - may have decided to take part after all.
To weaken adverse international reaction, Choe Su Hon, the deputy foreign minister, avoided saying the plutonium would be used to make bombs, only that his country would "change the purpose of these fuel rods". He was also careful to add that North Korea would not export its nuclear capabilities; one of America's chief concerns is that nuclear materials will find their way to al-Qa'ida.
In the past, Pyongyang has demanded hefty quantities of aid as a precondition for agreeing to take part in talks with the United States or South Korea. This time - with the Americans vowing not to give in to "blackmail" - no such inducements are on the table.
After the invasion of Iraq, Beijing became so alarmed by US threats to launch a pre- emptive strike against the North's nuclear facilities that it increased the pressure on its ally to become more compliant.Reuse content