Tuesday, October 17, 2006

North Korea Again:

It's a strange thing, really, the strength with which the world has reacted to North Korea's nuclear test. Not that it isn't alarming in the scheme of these things, but it seems a bit odd to me how we react to these things in general.

Nuclear weapons, it is generally agreed, are bad things, so when one of them goes off (regardless of circumstances) the world reacts badly. There's no way around this. Nonetheless, testing a small device underground, especially when undertaken by a declared nuclear power, is not an unmitigated disaster.

No, really. Consider: everyone's been pretty sure the DPRK has had nuclear weapons for a little while now. They've been pounding the table and insisting this themselves for a few years. Arguably, they now have one less of them from a limited stockpile, and no one's been hurt in the process.

The North is, by all appearances, the most diplomatically incompetent state in the world. They threaten when they ought to suggest, demand when they ought to coax. They make their diplomatic equivalents in Tehran look subtle and down right skillful (the latter are in fact both). The DPRK diplomatic corps even helps lend an air of professionalism to their colleagues in the Bush Administration.

But then, none of this is criminal exactly, it's just deeply inconvenient. No one seems to much know what to do with the DPRK. They've reacted to sanctions by declaring them an act of war. This is true, oddly enough, according to the letter of international law, but it hardly helps the situation. This should be a relatively easy problem to solve, in that the things they want are relatively easy to provide: better diplomatic relations with the west, security guarantees, food aid, and so on. The shear blowhard intractability of the regime in Pyongyang, paired with the intransigence of Washington on the subject, makes this far more difficult than it probably needs to be.

Compare again Iran, where no one much seems to know what to offer the government there in exchange for disarmament. In North Korea at least there is a plausible framework of agreement--security and aid in exchange for disarmament.

Instead, perhaps not knowing what else to do, the North is now threatening an additional test. Since a military solution is more or less out of the question—it would be far too damaging to South Korea—the situation, as with that in Iran, appears inclined to drift slowly in the wrong direction, little effective international action being taken. There's nothing necessary about this any more than the failure of the North Korean economy or the country’s absolute isolation is necessary. In each instance, the government simply can't see its way to doing things properly. A second test, as they've threatening, will of course only make a needless problem worse. The DPRK may be the only country in recent memory to go to hell on grounds of sheer incompetence.

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