Monday, May 25, 2009

China? Your Call

The North Koreans have successfully detonated a nuclear device:

North Korea claimed it carried out a powerful underground nuclear test Monday — much larger than one conducted in 2006 — a major provocation in the escalating international standoff over its rogue nuclear and missile programs.

The regime "successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test on May 25 as part of measures to bolster its nuclear deterrent for self-defense," the country's official Korean Central News Agency said.

Russia's Defense Ministry confirmed an atomic explosion at 9:54 a.m. (0054 GMT) in northeastern North Korea, estimating the blast's yield at 10 to 20 kilotons — comparable to the bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hours later, the regime test-fired three short-range, ground-to-air missiles, the Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed sources. U.N. Security Council resolutions bar North Korea from engaging in any ballistic missile-related activity.

Unlike their 2006 test, this one did not "fizzle." And the missile tests (not ICBMs, yet) are clearly meant to imply that the North Koreans could launch that nuclear device. We're not there yet, however. A nuclear device is not a weapon until it can be launched at a target, either by plane or missile. Sure, a cargo container carried by ship might be the method. But that isn't the same level of threat as being able to launch a nuclear warhead on command in a matter of minutes or hours.

I hope this stiffens our resolve to isolate and squeeze North Korea until they collapse. I'm not sure if even anybody in the administration believes that we could reach out to Pyongyang as this point. North Korea wants nukes and our aid, which the Pillsbury Nuke Boy is happy to call tribute to their Daring Porcupine, or whatever he's called these days.

But remember that we aren't at the point where we need to use force. North Korea is a proliferation threat (Iran and Syria, for the most part) and only a future direct nuclear threat. We don't need to do much more in addition to squeezing North Korea a little tighter other than quicken our missile defense preparations.

The real problem is China's. We are quickly coming to the point where major nuclear-capable nations like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan will have to decide whether they wish to be under direct nuclear missile threat from North Korea. Missile defenses are the easy decisions for these countries to make. But if North Korea can threaten US citizens on US territory with nuclear missiles, all three will have to decide whether they trust our commitment to risk an American city to use our nukes in defense of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. These three may want their own nuclear deterrent. We might face one more nation's nukes. China could face four more (The Chinese don't think that North Korea would never use nukes on China, do they?).

Taiwan, already under threat from China's nuclear (and conventional) arsenal, is perhaps the least likely of these three to make the choice specifically because of the North Korean threat, but Taiwan is really the nation already most in need of nukes. So if Japan and/or South Korea go nuclear, the Taiwanese might use North Korea as an excuse.

Heck, once the nuclear train leaves the station, who says that it stops with these three obvious clients for rapid nuclearization? Vietnam has long been under China's shadow. Indonesia might not want to be the only big country in the area without nukes. Even Australia might decide prudence requires some nukes.

China has been dorking around for years now, doing too little to smack down North Korea, enjoying the discomfort their little psycho client state inflicts on us. This despite the fact that a nuclear North Korea has repercussions far greater for China than for us.

The focus has been on President Obama. But our course is already set--squeeze and contain North Korea (including the Non-Proliferation Initiative to stop smuggling of nuclear technology). We just need to do both more vigorously. In all the talk of North Korean nuclear ambitions forcing a choice on military action, remember that China reaches that decision point long before we do.

So China, what's your call? The phone line is there, after all.

UPDATE: On the proliferation question, James Robbins in the corner reminds me that I should be more clear--I wonder how much of North Korea's nuclear program is Iran's program, paid for by Iran's dollars. We think we know that Iran's nuclear ambitions require Iran to enrich Uranium on their own. Why do we think this is the only track?