We're headed into the climax of the stormiest, most Absurdist opera-melodrama in, quite possibly, the history of international politics: the tale of Kim Jong-il and his quest for the magical atom bomb. It's a spectacle that combines the bombastic grandeur of Wagner with the cryptic plotlessness of Beckett, yet it's been commanding our attention and gnawing at our anxieties all decade long.
The latest episode—which the protagonists are hailing and dreading as the start of the final chapter—came Tuesday, when the Foreign Ministry of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (the official beyond-ironic name for North Korea) announced that it will "in the future conduct a nuclear test"—i.e., explode a nuclear bomb.
World reaction was fierce, if expected. China warned of "serious consequences" if Kim Jong-il went ahead with the test. South Korea's president, Roh Moo-hyun, issued a "grave warning" and directed his government to draw up "contingency plans." Japan brought up U.N. Security Council sanctions.
But Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs (and the Bush administration's chief negotiator on North Korean matters), issued the most curious statement: "We are not going to live with a nuclear North Korea, we are not going to accept it," adding that the Pyongyang regime "can have a future or it can have these weapons—it cannot have both."
In the realm of the diplomatic démarche, this is about as strong as it gets.
If North Korea explodes a bomb, President Bush and like-minded powers could be expected to pressure financial institutions to boycott all North Korean transactions. He could also mount a blockade of all ships going into and out of North Korea's ports. He wouldn't call it a "blockade" (which international law describes as an act of war), but he would—and legally could—take the action under the Proliferation Security Initiative, declaring that all ships are suspected of carrying nuclear materials. He could also order inspections of all North Korean aircraft landing in other countries. And he could call for U.N. sanctions.
But it all comes down to what the Chinese do. China, of course, has veto power in the Security Council. And most of North Korea's trade and traffic runs through China. Without Chinese aid, mainly in food and fuel, Kim's regime couldn't survive for long. Yet if the regime collapsed, millions of North Korean refugees would flood the Chinese border, prompting a catastrophe that Beijing wants to avoid for economic and security reasons. Kim's demise would also alter the military balance in East Asia. More than 30,000 U.S. troops currently holed up in South Korea to deter a North Korean invasion would be freed up and possibly deployed to bolster Taiwan's resistance to mainland pressures.
It is very likely, in other words, that China's rulers don't want to take any action that risks North Korea's survival—that they value national security and their own view of regional stability more than they value the principle of nuclear nonproliferation. (By the way, America's leaders do, too; hence the special allowances they make for the nuclear programs of India, Pakistan, and Israel.) If this analysis is mistaken, if China comes down hard on Kim after he sets off a nuclear bomb, then the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is in deep trouble. However, if Kim does explode a bomb, he will have calculated that China won't come down hard, that he can get away with going nuclear—and he may be right.
Bush, meanwhile, doesn't have any good military options to execute. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have trotted out the war plans for North Korea during previous crises, most recently in 2003, and everyone in attendance concluded that the risks were too great. Kim Jong-il's army has thousands of artillery pieces near the border, many within 50 miles of Seoul; a U.S. airstrike couldn't get them all in the first wave; a retaliatory strike could kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. As for toppling Kim through invasion, the North Korean army is weak and poorly supplied, but it's also huge (1 million men); the U.S. Army doesn't have many spare troops at the moment, and the terrain from the DMZ to Pyongyang, in any event, is prohibitively rough.
North Korea's own interests in getting a bomb are clear, and they have little to do with the fact that its leader is a bit of a flake. Kim's diplomats have clearly said for years that they learned a lesson from the wars in Iraq (those of 1991 and 2003): If you want to keep America from attacking, get some nuclear weapons. They also learned much from Pakistan's nuclear test in 1998, after which the country was transformed in American eyes from "outlaw state" to "strategic partner." In other words, Kim may think that he can wait out the pressure.