We should know a great deal more in a few days and weeks about the underground blast in North Korea that is widely viewed as a test of a nuclear weapon. Supposed experts are still pondering the evidence of what seems to have been, from an initial analysis of the seismic data, a low-grade nuclear explosion, if it was nuclear.
The experts say they’ll know when they analyze radiation patterns near the blast. The North Koreans say they were especially careful to seal the underground test area so that no radiation escaped — which could be true or could be part of an attempt to conceal the fact that the explosion did not emit radiation.
It is also possible, according to Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that the explosion is “a fizzle or failed test of a larger design. It is far easier to get some yield than an efficient weapon. Such a failure could come from either a gun or implosion device.”
The fact that we know as little as we do suggests that U.S. intelligence services, despite the billions poured into them, are not especially effective and may not be getting much better. Even if the North Koreans did explode a nuclear device, however, that changes surprisingly little about the essential North Korean situation.
We have known for some years, in part through intelligence and in part because they say so, that North Korea seeks to be known as a nuclear power. In some sick way — and it is hardly just the North Koreans who are afflicted by this syndrome — leaders of nation-states in the contemporary world see possession of nuclear weapons as a status symbol, a mechanism for being taken seriously by the “world community.”
North Korea is also aware that it was named one of the three countries in President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and that the United States invaded the first country so named. It might see the possession of a nuclear weapon — or the widespread perception that it has one, which might be just as effective — as a deterrent against the U.S. invasion that its leaders claim to believe is imminent.
We have also known for decades that North Korea lurches between being the “hermit state” that seeks to withdraw from the rest of the world in search of a Stalinist purity that was outdated even when Stalin was still alive, and doing outrageous things to attract world attention. For symbolic reasons, partially having to do with the fact that the Korean War was never formally ended through a peace treaty, the country it most likes to tweak is the United States.
The problem with most of the conventional approaches to North Korea is that they are unlikely to be effective. North Korea has thousands of long-range artillery pieces trained on the South Korean capital, Seoul. A military strike could mean hundreds of thousands of South Korean civilian casualties. U.S. forces stationed in Korea could also be vulnerable.
North Korea already is almost entirely isolated economically, so new economic sanctions are likely to impose little additional pain. Targeted sanctions against materials that could be used in a nuclear weapons program might be useful, but it seems likely they would simply raise the cost of North Korea acquiring such material, not cut off the flow completely.
North Korea is run by a barbarous regime whose very existence is an affront to the ideals of liberty. But it is not a direct threat to the United States. Now would be a good time to inform North Korea’s neighbors, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, that this is their problem to confront.
Japan is already talking about starting a nuclear weapons program. The other countries mentioned have all condemned the North Korean test but left vague just what they are willing to do. If the United States visibly handed off the problem to them it would focus their minds on the practical.
The favorite among proposals we’ve heard comes from Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and international studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. Make a deal with China, he suggests, for them to take out Kim Jong Il’s odious regime in North Korea (China could do it, whereas the United States probably couldn’t) in exchange for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula (which makes sense, anyway).
Whatever the eventual U.S. response, this is no time for panic. North Korea’s regime is despicable but not a direct threat. There’s plenty of time to hand off the problem to Pyongyang’s neighbors, who will have to live with the consequences of the choices made in the coming months and years.