Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

No, and meaning it

October 05, 2006

IF THERE IS ANYTHING MORE UNCLEAR than what North Korea is up to, it is what the rest of the world should do about it. The reclusive nation announced Tuesday that it intends to test a nuclear weapon. Even as diplomats raised doubts about its ability to carry out such a test, they were warning North Korea not to try.

That's a sensible if unsatisfying response to the latest provocation by the Stalinist nation, which tested a long-range missile in July (it failed about 40 seconds into its flight) and last year abandoned negotiations with the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea over its nuclear program. But if the North Koreans do conduct a nuclear test, the world will need to have a better response at the ready.

Part of the difficulty, however, is knowing what the truth is. So little is known about Pyongyang's program -- the North Koreans kicked out international inspectors in 2002 -- that the threat is just plausible enough to be worrisome. Satellite monitoring reportedly shows increased activity around possible test sites, but there has been increased activity in the past. And because North Korea has never conducted a nuclear test, it's hard for analysts to know exactly what to look for. There is also the possibility, always present with the North Koreans, that they are simply bluffing to gain negotiating leverage.

Diplomatically, the answers are no easier. The U.S., China, South Korea, Russia and Japan have always agreed on a core principle: They don't want nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. Beyond that, however, the consensus has shown signs of strain.

North Korea's latest announcement will bolster that consensus, at least temporarily -- as demonstrated by the wave of denunciations that rolled from Washington to Beijing. Yet as the U.N. Security Council takes up the issue, tensions will surely return. U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton urged the council Wednesday not to "simply issue statements for the sake of issuing statements." Russia's ambassador, meanwhile, struck a more cautious note, saying there was "a need for brainstorming" and that the council "should heavily focus on the first part of that term."

With diplomacy like that, who needs crises? The present (if not quite clear) danger is not just that North Korea could test a nuclear weapon, upsetting the delicate balance of the region and offering hope to prospective terrorist clients around the world. It's also that the diplomatic response will devolve into the usual maneuvering.

That can't be allowed to happen. Diplomacy is rarely satisfying, especially as the stakes get higher -- and nuclear diplomacy is the art of choosing among least-bad options (as the Bush administration is finding in Iran). A certain amount of posturing is inevitable. Even if they don't really mean it, nuclear nations have to say they will do everything they can to prevent another nation from gaining nuclear weapons -- because once another nation has them, there is very little they can do about it. The challenge now for the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia is as simple as it is difficult: to convince North Korea that they really mean what they say.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|