Fifteen years of diplomacy to prevent North Korea from going nuclear failed Monday with its thumb-nosing test of an atomic device. The test sets a new global task of forcing the North to give up its capability so as to halt the spread of atomic weapons.
The urgency of pushing Pyongyang to step back over this nuclear threshold is critical for at least four reasons:
1) Iran could soon be next in abandoning the Nuclear Non- proliferation Treaty (NPT), defying the United Nations, and testing its own device – an act that could set off a Middle East atomic arms race.
2) Japan may now abandon its constitutional pacifism and quickly build an atomic arsenal in order to prevent North Korea from possibly using nuclear blackmail against it. Such a major military shift by Tokyo would open its own cold war with China.
3) North Korea's past exports of conventional missiles and nuclear know-how could lead it to now sell small nuclear devices to Islamic terrorists.
4) This action leaves the NPT in tatters. The world needs to come up with a new way to prevent nations from seeking such weapons – especially those like North Korea with a history of belligerency and terrorism.
Eight years ago, Pakistan followed India with a nuclear test that was conducted outside the bounds of the NPT. The US, which at first tried to punish the two nations, has since accepted this South Asia reality – a reaction that possibly sent the wrong signal to North Korea, as did US acquiescence decades ago toward Israel developing nuclear weapons.
Plugging the leaks in the NPT have not gone well. The US was able to talk down at least two nations – Taiwan and Libya – from their aggressive nuclear programs. And under some pressure, both Iraq and South Africa gave up their nuclear programs.
With North Korea, the US and South Korea first tried direct diplomacy in the 1990s that led to a nonnuclear commitment by Pyongyang. But North Korea cheated, and the US then wisely looped China and Russia into multilateral talks with their wily and troubled neighbor – talks that included bilateral US-North Korea discussions. This created support for sanctions against North Korea after its July missile tests.
All that, however, didn't keep the nuclear genie in the bottle. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, ruling with an iron fist over a destitute and desperate nation, even defied China, a fraternal ally that provides the isolated nation with vital fuel and food.
China is now left looking like a paper tiger for this snub and it bears the most responsibility for rolling back this problem. Beijing can no longer simply accept the status quo.
President Bush's commitment to seek UN action against the North will depend on China shifting from a policy of wanting only a stable regime in Pyongyang and a safe border with North Korea. Those interests run counter to China's greater global interest in preventing nuclear proliferation – such as in Taiwan, Japan, or Southeast Asian nations.
Squeezing North Korea even more than it has been squeezed by sanctions will not be easy for Beijing. But China has a long history of forcing deference from its smaller neighbors. In this case, such pressure would be welcomed.