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North Korea test reverberates around the world

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(Note from John: AJ is a former intelligence officer with the US Department of Defense.)

UPDATE: ArmsControlWonk, which is the place for information on proliferation issues and a fantastic resource for science-stupid people like me, says the test was probably a dud. (Check out their analysis, then put the site in your bookmarks, it's consistently great.) So while the test is a failure of U.S. and world diplomacy, it may also have been a huge screwup by North Korea. It's better to claim you have usable nukes and have everybody wonder than prove you don't have them with a failed teset. Developing, as they say . . .

The blowback from North Korea’s nuclear test yesterday is just beginning. China has already made strong statement, calling the test "flagrant and brazen," and Russian President Putin said he "absolutely condemns" the action. Unusually strong statements from nations that have taken a softer line with North Korea . . . until now. UN, EU, and NATO leaders all denounced the test, and for those who don’t speak diplomatese, these are extremely strong statements. Usually diplomatic criticism is a web of impenetrable euphemisms, but not so here, and it seems that the world is essentially united in its horror.

North Korea is easily the most unstable of the nuclear club, and therefore perhaps the most dangerous. Kim Jong Il chose to test on the anniversary of his October 8, 1997 assumption of the titles of General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and Chairman of the National Defense Commission (the primary center of power in North Korea). The test came at the end of a week in which there was a border skirmish in which shots were fired, the newly-elected (and nationalistic) Japanese Prime Minister visited Seoul, and South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon was widely expected to be elected to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the UN.

This is a provocation of the highest order, and one that North Korea believes makes strategic sense. It truly believes that the U.S. may invade, and it views nuclear weapons as a significant deterrent against such action. Based on previous U.S. action, that’s not a surprising view, and, ironically considering how we view North Korea, they see U.S. foreign policy as erratic and unpredictable. They see us coddling Pakistan, another military dictatorship with nuclear weapons, and autocracies like Libya and Saudi Arabia, which produce terrorists at a rapid clip, while invading Iraq and isolating Iran.

Let’s call North Korea what it is: a part of President Bush's Axis of Failure. Since he bizarrely linked North Korea, Iran, and Iraq nearly a half-decade ago, North Korea has acquired nuclear capabilities, Iran has become more militant and more powerful, and we've turned Iraq into a terrorist-producing failed state. Axis of Failure. North Korea is the product of miserably failed policy, and now we’re seeing the results of the incoherent and ineffective Bush doctrine. From the assessment of North Korea at the newly-launched National Security Network, which is a good resource for brief and pointed policy papers on hot-button issues:

President Bush claimed he would not tolerate a nuclear North Korea, but he has done worse than that: he ignored the threat of North Korea as it expanded its nuclear arsenal . . . Another two years of the same flawed policy will only exacerbate the nuclear threat.
North Korea has a despicable regime, and its people suffer incredibly. It is impossible, unfortunately, to know whether regime change would be a net gain; predictions of massive regional destabilization, millions of refugees, and the new question of nuclear control makes for an incredibly difficult diplomatic and security situation. Further, I have no confidence that the Bush administration has the ability to handle it appropriately. This is a complex issue, but the bottom line is that President Bush abandoned a North Korea strategy that was on the right track in favor of vague threats and increased pressure. But much like the "plan" for Iraq, there was no discernable end-game. From Josh Marshall (specific link broken at the moment, will try to update):
Talking tough is great if you can make it stick and back it up; it is always and necessarily cleaner and less compromising than sitting down and dealing with bad actors. Talking tough and then folding your cards doesn't just show weakness it invites contempt. And that is what we have here. The Bush-Cheney policy on North Korea was always what Fareed Zakaria once aptly called "a policy of cheap rhetoric and cheap shots." It failed. And after it failed President Bush couldn't come to grips with that failure and change course. He bounced irresolutely between the Powell and Cheney lines and basically ignored the whole problem hoping either that the problem would go away, that China would solve it for us and most of all that no one would notice.
The Axis of Failure continues.

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