North Korea Tested an Atom Bomb; Now What?
Four potential scenarios—all bad.
Third, it's a fair bet that the Iranians will be closely watching the coming weeks' events. If the world lets tiny, miscreant, destitute North Korea—the freaking Hermit Kingdom—get away with testing a nuke, then who will stop the oil-rich, leverage-loaded, modern-day Persian Empire from treading the same road?
For many reasons, then, the world's major powers and organizations—if they have any capacity for coordinated action—must take actions to punish Kim Jong-il for what he has done, not to pound him with airstrikes (for better or worse, an impractical option), but to make his regime suffer in all other ways, to let those around him know that his actions are the cause of their suffering.
However, this leads to a fourth risky scenario that Sunday's test has set in motion: the danger of escalation and war.
A plan of economic pressure or sanctions depends crucially on cooperation from China. Without Chinese food, fuel, and other forms of aid, Kim Jong-il's regime would soon crumble. And that's the problem: The Chinese don't want the regime to crumble, for their own security reasons. It's a delicate matter to punish Kim just enough to affect his actions but not enough to trigger his downfall. The question is whether pressure from other countries—or the Chinese leaders' own anger at Kim's defiance of their warnings not to test—will lead them to walk this line and decide whether such a balancing act is possible.
It may well be that, back in 2003, the Chinese took the lead in creating a diplomatic forum to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis because they thought the Bush administration was about to order a military strike. They relaxed their sense of urgency once they realized a strike wasn't imminent after all. (This theory is held not only by White House hawks but also by many outside specialists who have pushed for direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.)
It is therefore conceivable that, in light of Sunday's test, some White House officials are proposing, once again, to send signals of impending military action against North Korea—if just to unnerve Beijing into going along with sanctions. The danger, of course, is that such stratagems can spiral out of control: Signals can be misread, threats can escalate to gunshots.
The current predicament is the outcome of three missteps: a major strategic blunder by President Bush (who refused to negotiate with the North Koreans when they were practically begging for talks and their course was still easily reversible); an only slightly less gigantic blunder by Chinese President Hu Jintao (who thought he could bring the North Koreans in line with minimal arm-twisting); and severe miscalculations, from start to finish, by Kim Jong-il (who thought Washington would have leapt at negotiations by now and who, apparently, didn't think his nuclear test would cause quite such excitement).
So, here we are. The two major powers in this confrontation are led by blunderers; the provocateur is a chronic miscalculator. It doesn't look good.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.