North Korea Calls the U.S.'s Bluff

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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.

As much as the international community was unanimous in warning the North Koreans against proceeding — the U.N. Security Council on Friday warned that a nuclear test would be treated as a threat to global peace, language that could open the way for binding sanctions or even tougher action — the next steps remain unclear, and potentially divisive. The U.S. and Japan will likely push for harsh sanctions, to back a demand that North Korea submit to denuclearization under international supervision. China and South Korea will likely back the principle that North Korea must be punished for crossing a red line, but their aversion to sanctions is based on fears of potentially cataclysmic chaos accompanying the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang, and those fears won't have been eased by the regime's demonstration of a capacity to lash out with nuclear weapons if it is being choked to death. Given North Korea's huge standing army and the vulnerability of South Korea to its conventional artillery and missile capability — as well as the extent of U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan — any military response remains unlikely.

North Korea's test will alter the tenses and grammar of the international community's demands, from insisting that North Korea refrain from developing and testing nuclear weapons to insisting that it reverse course and agree to denuclearize under international supervision. Those demands will likely now be backed by tougher sanctions, although the extent of likely sanctions is uncertain because the factors restraining neighbors from choking North Korea's food and energy lifeblood remain in place. And North Korea clearly sees its nuclear test not as ending the discussion, but rather as a way of strengthening its negotiating position: Its statement last week announcing the forthcoming test stressed that North Korea refused to disarm unilaterally, but remained committed to a dialogue "aimed at settling the hostile relations between the DPRK and the U.S. and removing the very source of all nuclear threats from the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity." It added that North Korea remained committed to achieve "the denuclearization of the peninsula through dialogue and negotiation."

Shortly before the nuclear test, CNN had reported that North Korea had indicated to China that it might be prepared to hold off on testing a weapon if the U.S. agreed to direct talks. Presumably, Pyongyang will continue to pursue that diplomatic goal, hoping that the crisis it has created by testing a nuclear weapon will bring pressure on the U.S. to abandon its own refusal to deal directly with North Korea. Until now, China and South Korea, in particular, have urged the United States to engage in such a dialogue. It remains to be seen whether the nuke test changes their stance.

North Korea may be hoping that, as in the case of India and Pakistan, an initial flurry of diplomatic scolding will eventually be followed by the international community resignedly engaging with a new member of the nuclear club for want of any other alternative. U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill has tried to disabuse them of that expectation, telling the New York Times last week, "This ain't Pakistan." Whether the U.S. can make it so, however, will depend, in large part, on the positions taken by South Korea and China in the weeks ahead.