North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb, and America shrugged. Oct. 9, 2006, Kim Jung Il’s nation became the ninth member of the nuclear club. Within two weeks this was ancient history, buried by other news.
It’s as if, as British historian Niall Ferguson says, the United States has attention deficit disorder.
A North Korean nuke is a monumental development. Never has a nation so unpredictable been known to possess such a lethal weapon. Its reckless leader simply doesn’t think in a rational manner—he has prioritized gaining nuclear weapons above feeding his own abysmally impoverished people. Last July 4, he “tested” a new missile system by firing a rocket in the direction of Hawaii. (Thankfully, this time, it dropped into the sea 40 seconds into its flight.) This man now has the bomb.
We can’t afford not to contemplate North Korea’s new status. Its nuclear test did more than rattle the Korean Peninsula. It exploded fictions. It atomized the careless notion that this nation can be ignored. And when the dust settled, a clearer view of the future lay revealed.
October 9 exposed several unsavory truths about our world. Here are five of those truths.
Nonproliferation efforts are dead.
Though Cold War fear of nuclear war has devolved into indifference, the threat is greater now than ever. Despite all efforts to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear material and know-how is making its way into more and more hands, some of which could well be extraordinarily unstable.
North Korea represents the greatest danger to date.
And nuclear weapons are like the backyard swimming pool: One family gets one and all the neighbors feel compelled to follow. Proliferation begets proliferation.
Kim Jung Il’s nuclear test comes as several other nations are pushing for nuclear programs, including South Africa, Venezuela, and, of course, Iran. Evidence proves strong links between those involved in North Korea’s program and those in Iran and Venezuela.
Within a month of Pyongyang’s nuclear test, six Arab states announced their intent to start nuclear energy programs. Experts suspect that nuclear weapons aren’t far from their thoughts, since these states, which include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, are likely trying to protect themselves from the Iranian nuclear threat. This sudden reversal of a longstanding nuclear-free Middle East policy among these states (with the singular exception of Israel) shows just how dead the notion of nonproliferation truly is.
During the Cold War, the United States limited the power of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal by simply trying to out-arm it. The potential of mutually assured destruction prevented both powers from launching the first weapon. With some of these newer nuclear powers or aspiring nuclear powers, however, state survival does not seem nearly as important.
The nonproliferation solution—simply to keep wmd out of their hands—was bound to last only so long. Today, in the Information Age, knowledge can spread through countless means. As Charles Krauthammer once wrote, “Anyone with a reasonable education in modern physics, chemistry or biology can brew [weapons of mass destruction]. Doomsday has been democratized.”
It’s true that global diplomatic activity continues at a frenzied pace—but at the end of the day, that is just talk. Meanwhile, global military expenditures are approaching a trillion dollars annually. This amounts to a full-blown, breakout arms race on a scale never before seen in history.
Nonproliferation efforts—noble as they are—have all but fulfilled their lifespan. We live in a new age of proliferation. A near-sighted superpower can shrug, but wmd buildup as we see today can have only one end: world war on a massive scale. It is a mere matter of time.
The United Nations is as impotent as ever.
Few international objectives have enjoyed as much unanimity among nations as the desire to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of North Korea. That being the case, one would think that the UN would be the ideal instrument for ensuring that this objective was met, decisively.
For years, as North Korea trumpeted its intentions to build a nuclear arsenal, the world witnessed the spectacle of the UN—supposedly intent on preventing this from happening—undergoing an elaborate diplomatic dance that, in essence, did nothing to hinder North Korea from its goal.
When Kim’s country successfully demonstrated it had achieved its ambition on October 9, the spectacle moved, for a short time, into a fancier phase, while achieving precisely the same result: that is, nothing. The United Nations Security Council agreed to apply sanctions against North Korea for detonating the weapon. North Korea responded by labeling the sanctions a declaration of war. It said it would not be cowed by such pressure since it was now a nuclear power.
History has already proven that economic measures do nothing to curb North Korea’s behavior anyway. The UN’s sanctions were doomed to fail before they were even discussed.
On top of that, China and Russia quickly made clear they would not comply with the sanctions, rendering useless whatever small effect they might have had. China and Russia, both nuclear powers themselves, do not see a serious threat in even a nuclear-armed North Korea. Stratfor argued convincingly that for both nations, the benefits actually outweigh the problems. China liked the fact that “the test flouts America’s will and the United States is unable to do anything about it. … American impotence is of direct interest to China. The United States has maneuvered itself into a position of taking primary responsibility for dealing with North Korea’s threat. China, seeking a dominant position in Asia, welcomes anything that makes the United States appear incapable of carrying out this role. The weaker the United States appears, the greater the vacuum for China to step into. Beijing is going to make the appropriate sounds, but will also make certain that the United States looks as helpless as possible” (Oct. 13, 2006). Russia has a similar goal in mind, mostly because of its competition with the U.S. over territory in Central Asia. But both powers appear bent on maximizing the discomfort of the U.S. while they further squeeze out its presence in their part of the world.
Thus, these two permanent members of the UN Security Council, while making public statements that appear to be in line with America’s position, are basing their decisions on criteria directly at odds with those of the U.S.
Not a good foundation for a strong multilateral response against North Korea’s provocative act. If anything, North Korea’s new nuclear status only highlights the profound differences between America’s national interests and those of Russia and China.
Thus, for having detonated a nuclear weapon and thumbed his nose at the entire world, Kim Jung Il faced, in effect, no consequences from the UN. His success spotlighted the irrefutable truth that this organization is truly unable to accomplish anything.
Iran has nothing to fear by seeking nuclear weapons.
The Islamic Republic—which is only half a step behind North Korea in announcing its own entrance into the nuclear club—watched this unfolding drama with a Cheshire grin on its face.
American politicians spoke incessantly of the fact that anything less than a firm response to North Korea would embolden Iran. And yet—in both the international sphere (through instruments like the UN or the vaunted “six-party talks” that were intended to keep nuclear weapons out of North Korea’s hands in the first place) and individually as a nation—the reality that the United States simply could not manage anything close to a firm response quickly became abundantly clear.
The fact is, even a firm response to North Korea would be unlikely to convince Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program. Iran’s president has plainly said that nothing would prevent his nation from achieving that ambition. He possesses a mythic belief that any catastrophes that his aggressiveness provokes will only hasten the advent of the Islamic messiah and the global ascendancy of his faith.
With Iran’s leader already devoid of scruples, perhaps it is a moot point to suggest that North Korea—whose nuclear scientists are in cahoots with those of Iran—successfully detonating its first nuclear device and facing no penalties would hasten the day that Iran would do the same.
But perhaps it isn’t.
Asia is likely both to accelerate its arms race and grow in cooperation.
Russia, China and Japan are three powers on the rise, increasingly pushing their presence internationally. Kim Jung Il’s nuclear test provides a pretext for accelerating their military endeavors. South Korea, too, will likely take the opportunity to begin embracing a military policy more independent of the U.S.
As Peter Beck, head of the Seoul office of the International Crisis Group think tank, stated, “There’s no equalizer like the bomb. … It’s safe to say [North Korea’s nuclear test] will lead to an arms race—will push all the governments in the region to increase defense spending.”
Immediately after the nuclear test, Japan said it did not want a nuclear weapon, having personally witnessed its horrors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War ii. Government officials referred to their dependence upon American promises to retaliate against any foe that would attack their nation.
But with America’s military presence in Asia diminishing in order to engage radical forces in the Middle East and elsewhere, for how long can the U.S. guarantee Japan’s and South Korea’s safety? Many Japanese apparently view their alliance with Washington as shaky at best. Since the October 9 test, several high-ranking Japanese officials have advised reigniting the national discussion over whether Japan should have nuclear weapons capability. Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, says he sees his country under direct threat from North Korea and has spoken of the need to speed up plans for a missile defense shield.
Another trend that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is sure to accelerate is the growing of cohesion among Asian states. How to deal with North Korea is now a question common to all Asian countries, driving increased political cooperation particularly among China, Japan and South Korea.
Though America has typically headed efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program, recently the real linchpin negotiator has come to the surface: China, the region’s economic powerhouse—together with Russia. On more than one occasion, Chinese and Russian empathy for North Korea has prevented America from forcing tougher penalties on Pyongyang. In turn, North Korea has shown more willingness to embrace China than any other nation. If there is a voice that insular North Korea hears, it is the voice of the Chinese.
This fact has not gone unnoticed by the Japanese or South Koreans. Though relations remain stable between Japan and America, and South Korea and America, both Tokyo and Seoul seek better relations with China. North Korea is a mutual concern to both Japan and China; what better way to repair and improve relations than by meeting Pyongyang with a united voice?
While North Korea was detonating its nuclear device, newly elected Shinzo Abe was making history. Historically, new Japanese leaders, in a symbolic gesture of their faithfulness to America, have made their first out-of-state visit to Washington. Not Abe. He visited Chinese President Hu Jintao, conducting the first summit between China and Japan in five years. This summit, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “marked the end to a long standoff between Asia’s two biggest powers” (Oct. 9, 2006). Abe next traveled to South Korea. In the world of international diplomacy, this unconventional itinerary was hugely symbolic—a sign of his desire to prioritize relations with his neighbors over those with America.
North Korea’s nuclear test couldn’t have been timed more perfectly for Sino-Japanese relations. Abe’s historic visit to China became even more momentous as news of the test emerged and the two leaders took the opportunity to make a public show of their newfound will to draw closer together. Thus it was with blended voices that Abe and Hu responded to North Korea’s nuclear test, expressing that they were “deeply concerned” and promising to work together to check North Korea’s nuclear endeavors.
As America’s presence in Asia wanes, we can expect Asian nations to increasingly work together in such ways.
The U.S. is too overstretched to handle new threats.
The United States is in crisis overload. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are absorbing far more money, manpower and resources than the U.S. ever expected to expend on them. A volatile Iran and several other smaller emergencies also command attention: Israel and the Palestinians, Lebanon, Venezuela, Cuba, immigration and so on. On top of all that, Kim Jung Il’s test occurred while America’s entire political scene was consumed with preparations for congressional elections.
Certainly one must acknowledge that Kim figured U.S. overstretch into his calculus for choosing his moment to detonate a nuclear weapon. As Dr. George Friedman said, it was “the perfect time to jerk Washington’s chain” (Stratfor, Oct. 10, 2006).
The success of Kim’s gamble is reflected in the weakness of Washington’s response, which amounted to little more than fussy condemnations. President Bush explicitly responded, “[W]e have no intention of attacking North Korea.”
As Fraser Nelson wrote in The Business on Oct. 13, 2006, “Three years ago, President Bush said that he ‘would not tolerate’ a nuclear North Korea—exactly the same form of words he uses for Iran now. But on Monday, the president moved the goalposts. He said it would be a ‘grave threat’ if North Korea were to sell its nukes to anyone else. A nuclear North Korea, it seems, will be tolerated after all.
“This is the lesson for Iran: Dictators with the bomb are treated differently to those without it.”
Friedman explained the problem facing Washington: “[T]he military reality on the ground in Iraq severely constrains U.S. options around the world. That, in turn, constrains U.S. diplomacy. Diplomacy without even the distant possibility of military action is impotent” (op. cit.). It is possible that Kim, in his megalomania, believes the U.S. is poised and ready to attack his nation on a moment’s notice. Realistically, however, it isn’t feasible. Already, in order to bolster its presence in the Middle East, the U.S. has reduced its force on the Korean Peninsula. “Superpower” status notwithstanding, its options regarding North Korea are extraordinarily limited.
Critics blast the Bush administration for its “unilateral” handling of the Iraq threat, which is perceived to have created the unwinnable situation that nation is in today. To whatever degree this view may be correct, North Korea illustrates the difficulties posed by the opposite approach—rigid multilateralism.
Dr. Friedman continued, “North Korea is a perfect example of what multilateral diplomacy without a unilateral military option looks like: The United States has recruited Russia, China, Japan and South Korea for diplomatic initiatives with North Korea as it partnered with Russia and European powers for dealings with Iran. Since the interests of these powers diverge, the possibility of concerted action, even on sanctions, simply does not exist. Since the possibility of unilateral action by the United States also does not exist, neither North Korea nor Iran need take the diplomatic initiatives seriously. And they don’t” (ibid.).
Though the U.S. jet-sets its officials around Asia, pushes for tougher sanctions on North Korea and reaffirms ties with South Korea and Japan, the truth stands: Unless it is prepared to use its superior military might to stop North Korea (which it refuses to do) America wields very little influence over the situation.
Unable to respond to any new threats militarily, America can only talk tough. But its bluff is being called. North Korea’s nuclear test clearly exposed just how overstretched the U.S. has become. This fact is far from being lost on other nations, including Iran, Russia, China and Germany.
This reality has enormous implications. It appears the days of America being able to maintain the status quo in international relations are past—and no signs exist that it can ever recover this ability. The door is thus open for other nations and coalitions of nations to begin to assert their wills and act aggressively in their own interests.
This portends dramatic changes in the world order, economically, politically, militarily.
Whatever direction this geopolitical restructuring takes, clearly it will be radically different from what we see today.
At the Doors
All the realities uncovered by North Korea’s power move—the failure of nonproliferation efforts, the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, the opportunities open to Iran, the rise of a more heavily armed and unified Asia, the limits of America’s geopolitical options—illustrate the urgency of the time in which we live. Checks on more such power grabs, and on war-making on a devastating scale, are proving ineffective. The muscularity and confidence of new, unpredictable powers is growing stronger.
Jesus Christ once warned of certain signs of the end of this age, and cautioned: “[W]hen ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.” To the student of those prophecies, recent events in Asia cannot be shrugged off. They represent a hastening toward the climactic conclusion of the present age.
With reporting by Brad Macdonald
To learn more about those prophecies, we recommend you read these free booklets: The King of the South and Russia and China in Prophecy.