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Jonah, I know the Kim Jong-Il’s detonation of a nuclear device is going to raise the profile of the issue, but the strategic consequences of this event — if any — are very difficult to gauge.  The White House will say it’s a terrible provocation, and probably spend the rest of Columbus Day yawning.  Regional policy has already taken account of the DPRK’s nuclear break-out because we’ve long thought it had nukes already.  As one senior administration official told me a few years ago, “With the tiniest probablity that they can incinerate Tokyo everything changes.”   On the other hand, while DPRK is certainly an irredentist “revisionist” power there’s not much it can revise — it’s not going to change China’s borders nor Russia’s nor the DMZ.  Kim Jong-Il may have a secret master plan for unifying the peninsula by nuclear blackmail.  But I am reminded that all the ex-Communist regime archives we have been able to explore in the search for Grand Strategies and Global Conspiracies have revealed only the records of perpetual regime crisis – which is what may be motivating the timing of this latest event.   In this connection, let’s remember that the real failure in U.S. Korean policy happened in 1994, which was when Clinton let the genie of rogue-state nuclear proliferation escape its bottle.  As I recount (subscription only) in the current print edition of National Review:

Cowed by North Korea’s threat to unleash war against the South — an almost-obvious bluff — Clinton placed the fate of the nonproliferation regime in the hands of “unofficial” envoy Jimmy Carter, who promptly reached a deal with Pyongyang and then announced it on CNN — without telling the administration first. The administration was forced to cave on the most important U.S. demands: inspections at any time and any place, and the dismantling of the plutonium program.

The lessons of the North Korea crisis are clear. The reason Clinton considered bombing North Korea’s nuclear facility at Yongbyon when it began removing spent fuel rods from the reactor pool was that this represented the last moment at which the nature and scope of North Korea’s nuclear activities could be known with any certainty. They were still years away from being able to manufacture a warhead, and yet the U.S. treated Pyongyang’s threat to eliminate nuclear transparency as an act of war — which, strategically speaking, is exactly what it was.

This latest provocation is little more than Kim Jong-Il commemorating the U.S. surrender enshrined in Clinton’s Agreed Framework.  What’s important is that we not make the same mistake in the case of Iran, a revisionist power with lots to revise. 


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