If North Korea has, in fact, assembled an arsenal of six or eight nuclear weapons, so what?
Well, for one thing, North Korea's forced entry into the nuclear club is likely to trigger a "cascade" of nuclear proliferation -- as the U.N. High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change termed it -- in Northeast Asia. To be sure, in the weeks ahead, Japan and South Korea will publicly reaffirm their nonnuclear status, but privately, officials there are almost certainly discussing their options.
My firm prediction is that on the current course, before the end of the decade, we will see a nuclear Japan and a nuclear South Korea. And when Japan creates its own independent nuclear deterrent, China will unquestionably respond in what promises to be a rerun of the U.S.-Soviet arms race.
Moreover, that is not the worst we have to fear from a nuclear North Korea.
North Korea is an economic basket case that desperately sells whatever it has to whoever will pay. Among national security specialists, it is known as "Missiles R Us," having sold missiles in the last decade to Iraq, Iran, Libya and Yemen.
Over the last two years, North Korea has not only been reprocessing plutonium for six additional bombs but has simultaneously reactivated its five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon -- previously frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States. It is also actively constructing a 200-megawatt reactor and a 50-megawatt reactor, as well as moving ahead with its secret uranium enrichment facility. On this path, when North Korea is able to produce additional nuclear weapons-useable material, or indeed bombs, nothing will prevent it from becoming a "Nukes R Us" for terrorists and other proliferators.
Observers who find such a possibility too hard to believe should reflect on what U.S. inspectors have found in Libya as the sheets were pulled off products from Pakistan's nuclear black marketeering. Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, supplied advanced designs for a nuclear warhead that could be delivered by a missile, as well as enough North Korean uranium hexafluoride to make a bomb.
As Henry A. Kissinger has noted, a defining challenge for statesmen is to recognize "a change in the international environment so likely to undermine national security that it must be resisted no matter what form the threat takes or how ostensibly legitimate it appears." North Korea's emergence as a nuclear armed state would constitute just such a catastrophic transformation for the United States.