Everyone but USA Today leads with the fallout—literal and figurative—from the nuclear test North Korea claims to have conducted late Sunday night. The subheads atop the two stories the New York Times pairs above the fold—"A Grave Threat" and "A Strategic Jolt"—sum up the foreboding mood. A partial rundown of the day's events: At the United Nations, the United States called for serious sanctions against Pyongyang; in Beijing, the government denounced North Korea's "brazen" move, signaling a possible break between old allies; across East Asia, there was worried talk of a possible arms race; and in Washington, Republicans and Democrats traded accusations over who was to blame for a "major failure"—the Wall Street Journal's words—of U.S. foreign policy. USAT devotes its "cover story" slot to the North Korean nuclear test, but leads with a poll showing that the President George Bush and the Republican Party are deeply unpopular with voters as the midterm elections approach.
The one glimmer of good news, if you can call it that, is that the test itself seems to have been something of a fizzle, as the Los Angeles Timessays in a story out front, and everyone else reports inside. With an additional day to pore over seismic and other data, analysts said it appeared that the that the underground explosion was exceedingly small (for a nuke, that is), perhaps around half a kiloton, which would make it about 3 or 4 percent of the size of the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Most newbie nuclear powers start off with a 10- to 60-kiloton blast, says the NYT. North Korean emissaries are said to have told the Chinese that the bomb would be about four kilotons shortly before the test, according to the Washington Post, so it would seem that the test may have been technically disappointing.
If, however, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's main objective was to tell world leaders that they could no longer ignore his nuclear ambitions, the test was a fabulous success. It was denounced around the world, but the most significant reaction came from China, which had wagered a considerable amount of its diplomatic prestige on the proposition that its economic leverage over North Korea would eventually bring Kim to the bargaining table. "Chinese leaders have lost all hope in North Korea," one Beijing-based political analyst tells the WSJ. The NYT's Joseph Kahn, in a typically sharp dispatch, reports that the word the Chinese Foreign Ministry used to describe the test, hanran or "brazen," is an adjective that it generally reserves for the actions of perceived enemies, such as the U.S. or Japan.
What is not evident, however, is whether China's adversarial approach will last, and if so, whether it will translate into the kind of tough sanctions the U.S. is proposing. At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, American diplomats proposed a ban on all trade in military goods with Kim's government and a system of inspections of all cargo in and out of the country, backed up by an authorization for military force. Other nations reacted cautiously to the sanctions proposal, which comes "precariously close to declaring war on North Korea," the WSJ says.
President Bush told reporters at the White House that he remained "committed to diplomacy," effectively acquiescing to the nuclear ascendance of one unit of his so-called "Axis of Evil." He then drew what was a new line in the sand, saying that if North Korea were to try to export its nuclear technology to, say, Iran or Syria, it "would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable." Thankfully, he did not add, "I double-dog-dare you."
Curious about how a starving pariah state headed by a playboy Stalinist ended up building a nuclear bomb? The LAT has by far the day's best rundown of the whole tragicomedy of diplomatic errors. Slate's Fred Kaplan looks at a few possible scenarios for the future, none of them very optimistic.
"The biggest threat is not North Korean missiles hitting Hollywood," a nuclear expert tells the WSJ. North Korea's nuclear prototype is still primitive, and a recent long-range missile test failed miserably. The real problem is that the test may make North Korea's neighbors, Japan especially, desirous of their own nuke. "Japan is known to have stockpiles of weapons-grade atomic material," the NYT reports inside, and could possibly build a bomb in months. (Question: How come Japan gets to stock up on fissile material and Iran doesn't?) For obvious historical reasons, a nuclear Japan would make the rest of the region very nervous. Meanwhile, the LAT reports from Seoul, about 30 miles from the DMZ, and finds that people there are "rattled" and wondering whether their government's "sunshine policy" toward the North was really such a wise idea.
On the bright side for the South Koreans, the Security Council approved their countryman Ban Ki-moon as the U.N.'s new secretary-general yesterday, just in time to deal with the North's big Ki-boom.
The WSJ breaks out a separate story on the domestic political reverberations of the test. Republicans are happy to be talking about Kim Jong-il instead of Mark Foley. Democrats have already begun to argue, as former Sen. Sam Nunn put it to the WP, that President Bush "started at the wrong end" of the Axis of Evil.
As USAT reports in its lead story, things were not looking so hot for the Republicans this fall even before North Korea shook things up. According to an in-house poll conducted by Gallup, those surveyed said they preferred the Democrats by a 23-point margin, "double the lead Republicans had a month before they seized control of Congress in 1994." The poll was conducted over the weekend, after a week in which page-related sleaze dominated the news. The WP and the NYT both have their own polls, and there's really nothing heartening in them for Republicans. The NYT's finds that 79 percent of respondents believe that in dealing with the Foley scandal, House Republicans placed their own political fortunes above the safety of the youths in the congressional page program. It also finds that after a brief uptick around the 9/11 anniversary, President Bush's approval rating has dropped to 34 percent. The WP finds that 64 percent of respondents disapprove of the way Bush is handling Iraq and 53 percent disapprove of his performance on terrorism—his lowest-ever rating on that issue.
There is some good news for the GOP, though, to be found in a top-front piece accompanying the poll in the WP: Because of the GOP's successful congressional redistricting efforts earlier this decade, fewer than 50 House races are competitive even in this perfect-storm kind of year. Democrats need to pick up 15 seats; Republicans see them winning somewhere between seven and 30.
Elsewhere in the world yesterday … Google agreed to pay $1.65 billion in stock for the world's online clearinghouse of monkey antics and head-butt animation. The FBI is as big a mess as you probably imagined. And a delightful WSJ piece reveals that folks in Madagascar have a very interesting way of showing their deceased loved ones they care: Every so often, they drag their corpses out of their graves and parade them around town amid much dancing and revelry. Reminds TP of a party we pages once threw at Denny Hastert's townhouse.