A New Nuclear World

North Korea's nuclear weapons test creates serious problems for the U.S. and its allies in trying to rein in the rogue state—and opens a dangerous new chapter in nuclear proliferation.

At roughly 10:30 Monday morning Pyongyang time, the number of card carrying members of a once exclusive club—those countries armed with nuclear weapons—increased yet again. In a mountainous region 385 km northeast of the North Korean capital, Kim Jong Il's government showed that it was as good as its word when it comes to saber-rattling. After warning last week that it intended to test a nuclear weapon, it did—defying the international community and daring it to do something in response.

Rhetorically, at least, the response was swift. China, typically thought of as the only nation with any influence on North Korea, said the test was "brazen" and that Beijing "resolutely opposed" it. New Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, on his first visit to South Korea as Prime Minister, said in Seoul that a nuclear North posed a "grave danger" to Japan. Meanwhile, South Korea's Prime Minister Roh Moo Hyun said his government would react "calmly, but sternly." All were waiting on an official response from the Bush administration, whose envoy Christopher Hill had said in a speech last week that the US "could not live" with a nuclear North.

But the question Washington woke up to Monday morning was starkly simple: what other choice does it really have? The fact is, the options available to the U.S. and its partners in trying to contain the North Korean nuclear threat are limited. Most analysts believe there is no plausible military option available: any strike on the North's nuclear facilities would give it enough time to launch artillery strikes across the border, to devastating effect in Seoul. Shoichi Nakagawa, policy chief of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, held out the prospect for further economic sanctions. "We've already imposed financial sanctions, but we'd have to raise the pressure a level by halting imports and exports and conducting inspections of ships" traveling between the two countries.

The U.S. and its partners in East Asia have had a broad array of financial sanctions in place for months—including the closure of accounts in a Macau bank allegedly used by members of Kim's regime to launder tens of millions of dollars—moves which even the Chinese government has supported. Indeed, analysts in Seoul, Beijing and Washington believe Pyongyang's fury over the sanctions was one of the reasons behind its defiant nuclear test. But cutting off North Korea completely—what hawks in the Bush administration have in the past referred to as the "strangulation strategy"—is unlikely, because neither Beijing nor even Seoul are likely to go along. More than anything, China seeks stability on the Korean peninsula; the idea of thousands of economic refugees pouring across the North Korean border and into northeastern China gives Beijing nightmares. Though Beijing provides up to half of North Korea's oil and a substantial amount of its food, "there is a limit as to what they can and will do," says Daniel Pinkston, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

The grim result is that the world may have to live with a nuclear North Korea—a reality that will likely have ripple effects across the global security landscape. Already, in Japan, advisers close to Prime Minister Abe are calling for Japan to go nuclear itself, despite its so-called "pacifist" constitution. "A missile defense system alone cannot protect Japan from a nuclear attack," Terumasa Nakanishi, an academic and outside adviser to Abe, told TIME Monday. "The only way to repress a North Korean nuclear attack is by possessing nuclear capabilities." Japan—the only country to suffer the effects of an atomic weapon dropped in anger—"will have to rethink it non-nuclear principles," Nakanishi asserts.

North Korea's ability to weaponize its nuclear capability—by placing it atop a missile, for example—and its ability to fire a missile across vast distances now becomes a critical part of the security calculus in northeast Asia. In mid-July, Pyongyang launched a missile potentially able to travel as far as Alaska or Hawaii, but it crashed just minutes after takeoff. But six other shorter-range missiles—all of which could hit Tokyo—were tested successfully. "The United States may be concerned," says Masahiro Sakamoto, vice president at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, "but for Japan this is a direct threat."

And the faster North Korea is able to climb the nuclear learning curve, the more acute the dilemma for Washington's allies in the region gets. If Pyongyang could hit Tokyo but could credibly threaten Tacoma, Washington at the same time, would the US respond as vociferously to an attack on Japan? Wouldn't Tokyo—or Seoul—seek its own nuclear deterrent under those circumstances?

The implications of Pyongyang's new nuclear prowess extend beyond Northeast Asia. Iran's ruling Mullahs are no doubt watching carefully, and may well be heartened by the relative lack of leverage the world seems to have to thwart the North's nuclear ambitions. As one former Defense Department official in Washington puts it, "If the world can't summon the will to apply crippling sanctions against an economic basket case like North Korea, what will it do when it comes to the world's third-largest oil exporter?"

If the answer is as it appears—not much—then Oct. 9 may well mark the crossing of a nuclear Rubicon of sorts. In Congressional testimony last year, Jon Brook Wolfsthal, deputy director for Nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace , said "History may well look back at our failed efforts with North Korea as the turning point when the nuclear dam burst and nuclear weapons became widespread and commonplace in the arsenals of scores of countries." Beyond the many voices raised in opposition to the North's test, the world now waits to see whether anyone will actually do anything about it—or whether Wolfsthal's grim prognosis is, in fact, the future.

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