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(photo credit: AP [file])
After four years of bluster and buildup, North Korea has finally reached the nuclear finish line. On Monday, Pyongyang said it had carried out a successful underground test of a nuclear weapon in defiance of the international community.
At every point along the way, North Korea has telegraphed its intentions, first announcing that it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and reprocess plutonium, then declaring that it already possessed a "deterrent force" and now, for the first time, proclaiming that it has conducted a weapons test.
In this way, North Korea has probed the resolve of those seeking to stop it, extorting economic rewards for simply showing up at the negotiating table while at the same time forcing the world to adjust to the idea that it either already is, or soon will be, a member of the nuclear club.
On the nuclear issue, at least, Kim Jong Il has proved to be a man of his word.
What is the likely effect of - what appears to have been - a successful North Korean nuclear test? The answer could turn out to be worse than many observers now seem to imagine.
For Kim, the nuclear blast is a personal triumph, the crowning glory of a 20-year nuclear research program carried out under his direction that puts him at last on an equal footing with his father and sainted predecessor and promises to secure the Kim dynasty for decades to come.
Success will boost the "Dear Leader's" already ample confidence in his own strategic genius, while putting him in a better position to deter external threats and to command the continued loyalty of his subordinates in the military and the security services. It may also convince him that he is freer to indulge his propensity for taking risks and his habit of extorting food, fuel and cash from his neighbors.
Instead of making Kim secure, and hence easier to deal with, nuclear weapons could well make him more aggressive and dangerous. The aftershocks of a nuclear test will reverberate in South Korea and could shake its society, economy and political system to their foundations. Critics of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun will accuse him of pursuing a failed policy of appeasement that has condemned the North's wretched masses to continuing enslavement while exposing the South to endless, escalating blackmail. Roh's defenders will, in turn, blame the US for provoking North Korea and will urge a redoubling of economic assistance and diplomatic suasion.
IN WASHINGTON, long frustrated by South Korea's unwillingness to step up pressure on the North, there will be sharp questions about the wisdom of continuing to deploy tens of thousands of US troops to defend a country that has been subsidizing its own enemy with aid and trade. If Americans blame South Korea for having done too little to stop it, a nuclear test could well trigger an agonizing reappraisal of the US-South Korea alliance. The resulting climate of uncertainty could damage investment and growth in the South, further heightening political tensions.
In Tokyo, the North Korean nuclear test will doubtless accelerate efforts by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to remove the pacifism clauses from Japan's constitution and expand its military capabilities. The question of whether Tokyo should acquire its own nuclear deterrent will move from speculation to serious political debate.
Moreover, with Kim brandishing nuclear weapons, Abe would probably fear that any conciliatory gestures could be misinterpreted as signs of weakness, and so would be far less likely to heed the advice of those who are urging him to give ground on public acknowledgment of Japan's misdeeds during World War II.
IF CHINA'S leaders believe they can sidestep blame for North Korea's actions, they are likely to be disappointed. China humiliatingly failed to stop the North from crossing this last line and this raises questions in Washington about the extent to which China has truly become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. The claim that Beijing was indispensable in keeping North Korea in check helped the Bush administration fend off pressure for tough action on other issues, including China's alleged unfair trading practices. With this prop gone, US policy toward China could become more sharply confrontational.
Finally, the North Korean test marks a painful defeat for the Bush administration. Having said repeatedly that it would never tolerate a nuclear-armed North, Washington may find that it has little choice but to do so. American credibility has been weakened and the system of international agreements meant to stop nuclear proliferation will suffer a possibly fatal blow.
North Korea's success will probably embolden Iran in its quest for nuclear capability while heightening Washington's resolve to use any means necessary to stop it. And this is to say nothing of the possibility that North Korea may follow through on yet another threat that it has made, albeit obliquely, in recent years: to sell or transfer nuclear weapons or material to whomever it chooses.
The North Korean nuclear test damages the national interests of all the major northeast Asian powers.
The writer is a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.- Los Angeles Times
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