Aired on KERA–FM (NPR), Dallas, Texas Oct. 13, 2006

It is terribly discouraging to see trouble erupt in North Korea, trouble that quite possibly could have been averted. The government of wily North Korean leader Kim Jong-il now has tested a nuclear weapon. The old ambiguity, such a comfort to diplomats in Beijing and Seoul — less so to Washington and Tokyo — has evaporated. In its place is sickening clarity, making plain what many have preferred to keep strategically obscure. An excess of clarity, like an excess of zeal, can rupture existing arrangements that make possible the preservation of somewhat peaceful association.

It was very useful not to know for sure whether the North Koreans had converted the nuclear fuel they certainly could produce into actual weapons. Now that we know beyond question, the United States has no choice but to push for sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.  The Japanese no doubt will go along since they feel the most threatened. They’ve already cut off imports from North Korea and closed their harbors to North Korean ships. But don’t count on South Korea and China to go as far as Washington would like. Some in both countries believe they can live with a nuclear North Korea but not a collapsing regime that sends a flood of refugees pouring across their borders.

As for sanctions, it was U.S. sanctions that helped bring on this impasse. Almost a year ago, after North and South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the United States had reached the vague outline of an agreement to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program, Washington went after Banco Delta Asia, a bank in Macao that allegedly had been laundering North Korean drug money for years. Washington also moved to punish some in North Korea who were accused of counterfeiting American currency. This abruptly terminated any negotiations that might have resolved, if only for a moment, the nuclear problem. Since then, Kim Jong-il has said that he only will return to the bargaining table when those sanctions, which cut off his country from major financial institutions, are lifted.

What were they thinking in Washington? Counterfeiting and drugs are very bad, of course, but not nearly as dangerous as nuclear weapons, which can be sold to rogue nations even if they’re not deployed against Seoul, Tokyo or Los Angeles. It’s as if some in the administration wanted to scuttle the agreement, hoping to hasten the fall of Kim Jong-il. But that seems remote at the moment.  While Pyongyang could be relied upon to break any new accord, it still would have bought some time, just as Clinton did with the Agreed Framework Jimmy Carter put together for him in 1994.

Now the president may have to send the American navy to block exports of nuclear technology from North Korea. This is the only military option available, and it’s far from satisfactory since questions remain about weapons that could cross the borders into China and South Korea. What would have been better is to hold off on financial sanctions last fall, come to terms of some sort with Pyongyang, and keep the powder dry for another day. Responsible voices are calling now for direct talks with Kim Jong-il. I doubt that will happen before 2009, and our chances of success, however limited, may be less then than they were a year ago.