Sunday, October 08, 2006

North Korea joins the nuclear club

North Korea is somewhat of an informational black hole. But apparently even black holes may give off a few emissions now and then. Yesterday was one of those times for North Korea, which claims to have successfully accomplished an underground test of a nuclear weapon.

The interpretation of the event is a challenge (was it actually nuclear? how large was it?), not to mention the even greater and crucially important question of how to deal with it, and what it signifies for the future.

The UN leaped to the offense in its usual way--although with a rare unanimity of opinion--and voted to condemn the act. President Bush said, in a sentence that seems loaded with irony to me, "Once again, North Korea has defied the will of the international community and the international community will respond."

If verbal disapproval were enough to affect North Korean policy, we'd be sitting pretty right now, because everyone who matters--including main North Korean ally and supporter China--has issued some sort of reprimand to the rogue state. But even diplomats are not naive enough to think that mere words will accomplish much; the question is what sort of teeth will go along with the tongue-clucking.

Speaking of diplomats--in a strange coincidence, this test occurs just as a South Korean is posed to become (on January first) the new Secretary-General of the UN. And in another coincidence (although a meaningless one) the new Secretary-General's name is "Ban." Would that he could. But he can't; the cat is long out of that particular bag.

No one quite knows what to do to be effective, which is probably one of the reasons North Korea has done what it's done (there's a good roundup of a variety of opinions and articles on North Korea and the bomb test here at Pajamas Media).

Economic sanctions are possible, but they impact heavily on an already-suffering population held hostage by dictator Kim Jong-il. The EU has no plans to stop its aid (which only amounts to about twelve million dollars anyway), but South Korea is pondering an end to its engagement policy with the North, according to President Roh. Japan is considering unspecified "harsh measures," although a statement was issued that the country is not planning to go nuclear. The US is considering some version of a naval blockade, although not to the point that it would constitute an act of war.

And China, key player as the main support of North Korea and vital to its continued existence as a minimally functioning economy, is somewhat of an enigma itself. Here's an attempt by Joe Katzman at Winds of Change to solve the riddle of the Chinese sphinx. It's well worth reading, although very sobering. The main thrust is the thought that, even though there are some drawbacks for China to a nuclear North Korea, there are many possible advantages that would lessen China's motivation to really stop them:

...friction with the USA, paralysis that keeps their North Korean client safe from retaliation, and positioning Korea psychologically to be responsible for the North later (but not, for instance, for starving North Korean refugees now)... all are exactly what China's doctor ordered from a geo-political perspective.

If Katzman's analysis is correct (and it seems as good a one as any other I've read so far), perhaps the best thing to come out of the North's nuclear test would be if South Korea drops its seeming naivete regarding its other half.

How did it come to this? Clinton played for time and helped create the monster through his own naive policies; the Bush administration was left holding the bag but never could figure out what to do with it. And the international community's response to the lack of proof of weapons of mass destruction post-Iraqi war has shifted the burden of proof in a way that's singularly unhelpful.

Of course, North Korea--unlike Saddam prior to the war (although it may be that his pose was just bravado), or Iran's behavior now--isn't trying to hide anything. On the contrary, the North is flaunting its newfound toys. But one thing is certain: the whole world is watching to see what will happen next, because how the world deals with this threat will set a tone for future threats. And future threats are bound to come in the age we appear to have entered now, that of relatively easy nuclear proliferation.

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