So now what? North Korea's announcement of the successful underground detonation of a nuclear weapon has called Washington's bluff. President Bush had long warned that the U.S. will not "tolerate" a nuclear-armed North Korea, and just last week his chief negotiator with the hermit regime, Christopher Hill, warned that Pyongyang would have to choose between having nuclear weapons and having a future. Monday morning's announced test suggests that Kim Jong-il has decided to test Washington's "or else."
The consternation at failing to deter North Korea from becoming the world's eighth declared nuclear weapons state (joining the U.S., Russia, France, Britain, China, India and Pakistan Israel is generally believed to have nuclear weapons, although it has never publicly disclosed such capability) will hardly be confined to Washington. South Korea has called its national security council into emergency session, and will face pressure from the U.S. and Japan to terminate its "Sunshine" policy of trade and engagement aimed at moderating North Korean behavior. Japan, well within range of North Korea's missiles and a longtime object of its ire, will press for a tough response, and may see its own debate over whether to build nuclear weapons rejoined with new vigor. China will face the uncomfortable reality that its patronage of and friendship with North Korea gave it no leverage, at the decisive moment, over a troublesome neighbor whose actions threaten to destabilize the entire region and provoke a more assertive U.S. presence on turf that Beijing regards as its own back yard.