Rod Man Un, Little Kim Play Nuclear Version of H-O-R-S-E

Feting basketball has-beens, popping off nukes, threatening "armageddon": What's North Korea up to?

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North Korea's nuclear program and its international game plan remain unclear, but one thing is certain: the impoverished dictatorship has the world's attention.

A lot has happened in the notoriously reclusive Asian nation in recent months. It successfully conducted its third ever nuclear test in February, it launched another rocket into space at the end of last year and the young leader, Kim Jong Un, announced Monday the birth of his heir. Perhaps none was more bizarre than the visit last week from NBA All Star Dennis Rodman, and the some members of the Harlem Globetrotters.

[PHOTOS: Dennis Rodman Visits North Korea]

Rodman's at times incoherent debrief with ABC's George Stephanopoulos did little to explain the rationale behind the trip and his interactions with the North Korean leader, whom he describes as a friend.

Some experts and North Korea watchers saw the invitation to Rodman as a nuanced tactic by Pyongyang to raise the profile of the government's interactions with the world. Others saw it as a dangerous stunt from the young and untested Kim Jong Un, an avid basketball fan.

"If you were a hardened North Korean general, and you have this young, inexperienced leader, I doubt you would be reassured by his maturity and seriousness," says David Straub, associate director of Stanford's Korean Studies Program. "If you were a hungry North Korean out in the provinces, what would you think of it?"

"This may be more Kim Jong Un's personality showing as anything else," he says. "I think it's quite negative for Kim Jong Un himself and for the regime."

The sequence of events follows a standard and repeated strategy from the North Koreans, says Straub, whose 30 years with the State Department included more than a decade at the Korea desk. Every time their actions angers international organizations, such as NATO or the United Nations, North Korea follows up with one of two options: visitor diplomacy as a part of a "charm offensive," or belligerent rhetoric.

"That's very typical. They have a playbook. It works, in their opinion, and they continue using the same playbook over and over," says Straub. And in this case the North Koreans seem to have employed both strategies.

Following news that China and the United States have agreed on U.N. sanctions, North Korea responded with particularly aggressive language.

[RELATED: Should Obama Take Rodman's Trip Seriously?]

"This serious situation clearly indicates that the actions of the U.S., South Korea and other hostile forces to infringe upon the sovereignty of the DPRK are now leading to a military offensive for aggression, going beyond the level of outrageous economic 'sanctions,' " reads a statement from the Supreme Command of the Korean People's Army.

It goes on to say that the country may make "a strike of justice at any target anytime as it pleases" without restriction from the armistice agreement following the Korean War.

However, not everyone believes these most recent moves were an amateur mistake.

"I doubt senior military leaders are very happy with Rodman coming, but they understand this is what Kim Jong Un wanted and they're willing to tolerate it," says Charles Armstrong, professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University.

It puts the United States in an awkward position, he says, likely the reason why the State Department delayed addressing it and why there has been little about the visit from the White House.

"There is a humorous side to this, but there is also a very serious aspect," says Armstrong. "Rodman is not the most articulate diplomat we have. Having said that, I think we have to understand that only criticizing North Korea for its human rights record, as justified as that may be, is not going to get us very far right now. We have other problems that need to be addressed."

China and the United States have agreed on sanctions, but the true effect will follow China's willingness to actually enforce them. And, these sanctions exacerbate North Korea's economic problems along with the regime's cruelty and incompetence, says Armstrong.