The rising tension on the Korean Peninsula sparked by the torpedoing of a South Korean military vessel, which evidence suggests was committed by North Korea, once more demonstrates the unpredictable nature of Kim Jong Il’s political regime.

The incident makes forecasting the North Korean leadership’s next steps difficult. Are further military provocations likely, or will the situation be limited to belligerent rhetoric? Much will depend on the positions taken by China and Russia. However, the harsh response from the United States, coupled with South Korea’s decision to suspend humanitarian aid to North Korea, leaves little chance for a rapid settlement of the conflict.

It is hard to say what type of sanctions the UN Security Council might impose on North Korea, or how Pyongyang may react. No one has an interest in further escalation, much less outright military conflict—not least North Korea, given its severe economic difficulties.

But the latest crisis deals a heavy blow to the six-party talks on defusing the North Korean nuclear situation and to the nuclear nonproliferation regime in general. No one knows for certain what North Korea has at its disposal: nuclear warheads that could be fitted to its Nodong or other ballistic missiles, or more primitive nuclear devices that could, for example, be delivered by ship to the coast of Japan or South Korea.

But it is impossible to rule out that Kim Jong Il, if backed into a corner, could take extreme measures. Attempts to resolve the conflict must keep this danger in mind. 

Vladimir Dvorkin is a Carnegie Moscow Center expert on nuclear security.