North Korea's "smaller bang" *
Since they test fired several ballistic missiles last July, North Korea has been clamoring for attention. Failing to get the United States to take any high-profile actions (covert actions are another matter), the Pyongyang regime felt it had no choice but to go ahead with the nuclear test. But was it just a dud? Virtually all estimates place the yield of the explosive device at well under a kiloton of TNT, compared to about 20 kilotons for the Hiroshima bomb. The low yield may reflect the desire by North Korea to conserve as much of their tiny stockpile of fissionable material as they can. The International Community expressed unanimous condemnation toward North Korea, of course, (see Washington Post), but that really doesn't matter. Anyone with any sense knows that North Korea is the most "evil" regime of the "Axis of Evil," and condemning its actions is beside the point.
In order to get its blackmail agenda back in operation, North Korea needs desperately to achieve one thing: Force the U.S. government to negotiate in a one-on-one setting. Such bilateral talks would greatly enhance North Korea's global prestige. In order to nullify North Korea's high-stakes gambit, the United States must avoid doing anything to justify or reward the nuclear test, which means no talks except in a multilateral format. The Bush administration should resist the demands by many Democrats and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan (how ironic!) to hold immediate bilateral talks, and continue the existing approach of wary detachment, showing no more concern or worry about Kim Jong Il's temper tantrums than is necessary. Fortunately, "staying the course" is one thing the Bush administration has excelled at. Ambassador John Bolton acknowledged that multilateral diplomacy is time-consuming and frustrating, but in this situation that is just fine. Time is on our side, whereas North Korea is desperate to get more extortion money. In the end, they may lash out with some kind of military attack or even an invasion of South Korea, but such a move would be suicidal.
So, what are the fallback options in case (!) diplomacy fails? Apparently, the White House has ruled out any military action against North Korea, so it looks like we are in for an intense period of symbolic sanctions and outraged breast-beating. Milblogger Austin Bay recommends "hermetically sealing" the "Hermit Kingdom." That's fine, but over time, any sanctions will tend to erode, just as they did with Iraq, and corrupt officials in China or Russia will find it very lucrative to look the other way.
What many people fail to appreciate is that the North Korean nuclear test has put the United States in a very favorable diplomatic position. All of a sudden, countries with whom we have had tense, often adversarial relations -- China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea -- are eager to collaborate with us in putting an end to the threat posed by North Korea. As Harold Hutchison notes at strategypage.com, the main consequence will be to reawaken the "sleeping giant" of Japan, which may decide to build its own nuclear weapons. From our perspective, that is fine. We have enough problems around the world already, and would be glad to share the burden of maintaining security in northeast Asia.
* For non-rock music fans, that's an allusion to the Rolling Stones' latest album, A Bigger Bang.