Righteous anger gives way to realpolitik for North Korea's neighbors.
Some two weeks after North Korea leapt a grave military threshold to test a one kiloton nuclear device, and a week after the UN Security Council passed its strongest resolution ever on North Korea, much of the collective outrage and resolve in this region appears to be on the wane.
The initial brave tone of international brio and unity is being slowly supplanted by a strange interregnum in northeast Asia. Despite talk of a new cold war and a possible second nuclear test by North Korea, the country's neighbors are clearly shifting back toward their more measured, pre-test diplomatic approach – when national interests trumped regional security concerns.
"Everybody said this event [nuclear test] would be a paradigm shift. Is it?" says Scott Snyder of the Korea Foundation. "China and South Korea have already done a fair amount of backpedaling ... only a week after the test, we were seeing people dialing down expectations. We are in a new world that still looks a lot like the old world."
China initially called the tests a "flagrant ... disregard," and Russia called them an "extraordinary situation" – both rare uses of hard-line language.
But even before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took a four-country, five-day visit to rally the various Asian capitals to support policy efforts to "isolate" the North, cracks were appearing in the edifice of outrage attending the Oct. 9 test. UN resolution 1718, passed on Oct. 14, called for strong sanctions. But since that time, disagreements have developed over interpretation. The US and Japan have favored a proactive "interdiction" approach to sanctions that allow for seizures on the high seas. China and South Korea favor a less intrusive "inspections" approach.
As far as North Korea's neighbors are concerned, few of the options to halt Kim Jong Il's nuclear accession seem achievable. The national interests of Japan, South Korea, and China in the future resolution of the two Koreas are quite different. Moreover, fears and tensions have risen as officials and publics in parts of Asia have, for the first time, considered a possible nuclear conflict.