Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Schrodinger's Nuke

I'm too lazy to look up how to do umlauts, so let's assume I know how to spell Schrodinger correctly and move on.

The North Koreans claim to have staged a nuclear test on Oct. 9, although experts now think it was a dud, (and some folks are saying it might even be a hoax). Democrats have predictably begun screaming that it was all Bush's fault (it would not surprise me if some nutjob conspiracy theorists on the left made the claim that the Bush administration was actually behind it, either by helping perpetrate a massive hoax with conventional explosives, or by providing the NorKs with a nuclear device), while Republicans are blaming Clinton and Carter.

And of course, when they can pause to take a breath, everybody's simply baffled. Because whether test or hoax, the North's action simply makes no sense.

The North Koreans have always been sort of the nation-state equivalent of the Gambino Family. Which is to say, North Korea has no economy to speak of, and makes its money through essentially criminal means: gunrunning, gambling and extortion. The 1994 Agreed Framework was one example of that extortion. Essentially, the North Koreans said they would develop nukes unless we made it worth their while not to. We did, and then they did it anyway.

Criticize Bush for inaction if you will, but you have to understand that our range of options with the DPRK has been limited for some time now. Hell, even when Bush came into office (before the North Koreans admitted that they'd basically never paid attentoin to the deal they made with Clinton), it was generally assumed that, even with the 1994 agreement in place, the North Koreans had at least one (untested) nuke, and maybe as many as six. We knew they had the fissile materials, and we could assume they had access to the knowledge.

But without a successful test, we could not confirm the weapons' existence or publicly acknowledge it. So we had to adopt this Schrodinger's Cat approach to North Korea policy. We had to assume that they both did and did not have nuclear weapons, taking their existence into account in military planning while publicly continuing our attempts to stop them from obtaining what they (probably) already had. Our public posture would be that, without incontrovertible evidence that such nukes existed, we would act as if they did not, threatening sanctions if the North did not cooperate, offering rewards if they did.

Which makes this test so baffling. Because if the North confirms that it has nukes, we have no reason to keep bribing them to not develop them. Perhaps they think they can get us to pay them not to sell the weapons to anybody else. But a confirmed nuclear North Korea changes the balance of power in the region, and basically gives us an excuse to let our own Asian allies off the leash. What will the NorKs think when Japan rearms and nukes start popping up in Japan and South Korea and Taiwan? Do they seriously think they have a prayer of keeping up a serious arms race with such countries?

I'm not panicking here. As others have said, if genuine, all this test and the recent missile tests prove is that the North Koreans have warheads that won't fire and missiles that won't fly straight. Their nuclear threat is serious, but not yet imminent. But somebody damn well better get serious about these guys, right now.

No comments: