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It's the Nukes, Stupid

The day before Christmas of last year, I wrote of the situation on the Korean Peninsula:

A paranoid, totalitarian regime which has in the past engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, and which recently demonstrated the ability to reach the capital of the world's second-largest economy with ballistic missiles, has reneged on its agreement to halt nuclear weapons development and now has the capability to produce such weapons within six months. Its democratic neighbor to the south, which it attempted to conquer in the past, and which has pursued a policy of engagement to attempt to improve relations, has just elected a new leader who has never traveled outside the country and who believes that more engagement will solve the current crisis. A superpower is committed to the defense of the democracy, but the people so protected are as skeptical of the superpower as of the totalitarian regime. In any case, the superpower is distracted with the pursuit of war against a paranoid, totalitarian regime elsewhere in the world.

Do people appreciate just how serious this situation is?

From an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday:

Speaking privately, [US] officials... outlined a bizarre scene of spiraling threats from the North Korean side.

As expected, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly opened the talks by insisting that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear ambitions. The head of North Korea's delegation, deputy director of American affairs Ri Gun, in his opening statement, declared that his country had "successfully reprocessed almost all of the eight thousand spent fuel rods" it has been storing into nuclear-weapons material. "The only question now is what we do with the plutonium," he said, said a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the talks.

After making that threat, the North Korean laid out a long series of concessions the U.S. needed to make, including extensive aid, a nonaggression pact and full diplomatic relations, in exchange for which his country would eventually abandon all its nuclear-weapons programs.

U.S. officials said the threats escalated sharply on Wednesday evening, when Mr. Ri pulled aside Mr. Kelly for a brief private conversation. In that talk, according to U.S. officials, the North Korean declared that his country already has nuclear weapons -- the first such admission by any North Korean official.

"Whether we test them, use them or export them depends on your next step," he is reported to have said. Mr. Kelly had no response, a senior U.S. official said.

If this account is correct, and if the North Korean threats were more than mere bluster, we have a situation that is now perilously close to disaster. North Korea has not only built its first nuclear weapons, but is threatening to export or use them.

Last week, hawks were crowing that our victory in Iraq had forced the North Koreans back to the bargaining table. I don't hear much crowing right now. While the Bush administration has been consumed with Iraq, the North Koreas have apparently made dramatic progress with their nuclear program.

Our options for a graceful end to this crisis are narrowing. Japan and South Korea must stop coddling the North Koreans. We must stand together -- with the Chinese and Russians if possible, and without them if not -- and let the North Koreans know that we will not tolerate their possession of nuclear weapons.

My hope is that the Bush administration understands this and delivered this message to the North Koreans quietly, allowing them to save face in public. My hope is that we told them unambiguously that military action is an option for us, but that we would rather avoid conflict and resolve the situation peacefully.

North Korea must not be allowed to retain permanent possession of nuclear weapons. For them to do so would be an foreign policy mistake of the highest order. If the North Koreans develop a functioning arsenal of nuclear weapons, it won't matter how successful the administration is in Afghanistan and Iraq; we will have allowed a paranoid, totalitarian regime that has been a state sponsor of terrorism, and which possesses ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US, to develop weapons of mass destruction.

It's the nukes, stupid.

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