AS the war clouds continue to gather over the Korean peninsula, it remains impossible to explain North Korea's precise motivation in pursuing its nuclear weapons programme (NWP). Only this week an open society like the US finally admitted that it had earlier conducted over 200 secret nuclear bomb tests. North Korea merely adds extra, almost impenetrable, layers of secrecy. At one extreme, the few who still seek to justify North Korea's actions to the world maintain that North Korea's NWP is far more primitive and small-scale than imagined, and that it is the hawks in Seoul and Washington who exaggerate the development. Butwere this view correct, North Korea need not have quit the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Talks (NNPT) last March. Another explanation, favoured by ''doves'', is that North Korea is essentially pursuing its NWP for use as a bargaining chip, or to draw attention to itself now that South Korea has won diplomatic recognition from the North's former allies, Russia and China. Obviously there are better and cheaper ways for Pyongyang to secure recognition from Washington and Tokyo. It can also be argued that, if this view is correct, North Korea should have already cashed in its bargaining chip, given the plethora of inducements which it has been offered, and its desperate need for Western and South Korean economic aid. But now that North Korea - after three years during which its economy contracted by an estimated three to five per cent per annum - has finally got around to admitting that its economic situation is grim, this explanation is again in vogue. North Korea, the doves say, is anxious to open up, to follow in China's economic footsteps. This is a distinctly fashionable view as North Korea continues to win even more time, during which it can either push ahead with its suspected NWP, or else make certain that the NWP is well concealed from the eyes of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, should they ever be allowed to return to Pyongyang. Nine months ago, when North Korea first announced its renunciation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), it should have been told quietly but firmly that this was unacceptable, that treaty membership was not a matter of whim, and that it had toabide by its NNPT commitments. Instead, the newly-installed administrations of South Korean President Kim Young-sam and US President Bill Clinton embarked upon a dubious process of offering North Korea numerous inducements to do what it was legally obliged to do anyway. As the numbers of these diplomatic carrots increased, the North Koreans - who may be isolated, but recognise weakness when they see it - reciprocated with a counter-process of offering minimal concessions sufficient to keep the carrots coming, and their NWP undisturbed. The North's real fear was, however, revealed by its frequent recourse to threats of renewing the unfinished Korean War should sanctions be imposed. These threats did not persuade the US and South Korea to abandon the carrot-giving and bring the crisis to a head. Instead, they have succumbed to the North Korean bluff. Late last month Mr Clinton and Mr Kim Young-sam made it clear at one level (pleasing the hawks) that North Korea must fully accept IAEA nuclear inspections, and recommence its dialogue with South Korea before any further developments could take place. Almost simultaneously, (pleasing the doves) the US told the North of the concessions that could follow North Korean compliance with this pre-condition. True to form, the North has not accepted the basic precondition. It continues to flout the NNPT. The North has merely offered to re-accept routine IAEA inspections, but definitely not to allow the inspections which alone could provide IAEA inspectors with clues about North Korea's NWP. While the two presidents ostensibly retain their stated precondition, they are obviously acting partly in fear of North Korea ''lashing out''. More talks between US and North Korean diplomats are in prospect. But the critical North-South dialogue on the denuclearisation of Korea remains frozen. Leaks to the American press indicate that majority opinion among the various US intelligence agencies is that the North Koreans will not at any stage fulfil the Clinton-Kim precondition of allowing full IAEA inspections. One view is that, by going nuclear, North Korea seeks to make up for the loss of its former communist allies. Others put the same thought in a domestic context: that the Great Leader President Kim Il-sung and his son, the Beloved Leader Kim Jong-il see their possession of nuclear weapons as shoring up their regime against both domestic and external foes. Two grave conclusions follow from these calculations. If nuclear weapons are becoming the latest manifestation of the Great Leader's doctrine of self-reliance, then no compromise is possible. The North Koreans will only abide by NNPT conditions if they are allowed to define them. Second, if these are the motives, then the North's NWP is already linked to the potentially combustible emotions underlying Korean dreams of reunification. For doves, the removal of State Planning Commission chairman and Deputy Premier Kim Tal-hyon, plus the statement admitting the gravity of the North's economic situation, both indicate a tentative move towards openness. Since Kim Jong-il is mainly responsible for North Korea's intransigence, the resurrection and elevation of Kim Il-sung's 71-year-old brother Kim Yong-ju represents an overdue effort to curtail Kim Jong-il's mercurial ways. For hawks, Kim Tal-hyon's demotion represents the elimination of one North Korean who had once shown himself to be in favour of openness and greater co-operation with South Korea. The doves see the North Korean moves as justifying more carrots. The hawks believe their explanations sanction more sticks. These plausible, yet contradictory, viewpoints emphasise one of the most dangerous elements in the developing crisis. When it comes to explaining North Korean reality, the only valid answer is often the four little words - we do not know.