Weak on both sides...
… and radioactive in the middle.
By now you know that North Korea has apparently successfully tested a nuclear weapon. (Experts prefer the term "device", rather than "weapon", but given the fact that this device's sole function is to cause large-scale destruction, I think the word weapon is allowable.)
The size of the bomb is uncertain. South Korean reports put it as low as 550 tons of destructive power but Russia said it was between five and 15 kilotons. The 1945 Hiroshima bomb was 12.5-15 kilotons.
Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall neatly sums up how the blunderings of the Bush Administration helped put us back on the road to Hiroshima.
North Korea's nuclear program has been a problem for US presidents going back to Reagan, and the conflict between North and South has been a key issue for US presidents going back to Truman. As recently as 1994, the US came far closer to war with North Korea than most Americans realize.
President Clinton eventually concluded a complicated and multipart agreement in which the North Koreans would suspend their production of plutonium in exchange for fuel oil, help building light water nuclear reactors (the kind that don't help making bombs) and a vague promise of diplomatic normalization.
President Bush came to office believing that Clinton's policy amounted to appeasement. Force and strength were the way to deal with North Korea, not a mix of force, diplomacy and aide. And with that premise, President Bush went about scuttling the 1994 agreement, using evidence that the North Koreans were pursuing uranium enrichment (another path to the bomb) as the final straw.
Remember the guiding policy of the early Bush years: Clinton did it=Bad, Bush=Not whatever Clinton did.
All diplomatic niceties aside, President Bush's idea was that the North Koreans would respond better to threats than Clinton's mix of carrots and sticks.
Then in the winter of 2002-3, as the US was preparing to invade Iraq, the North called Bush's bluff. And the president folded. Abjectly, utterly, even hilariously if the consequences weren't so grave and vast.
Indeed, from the moment of the initial cave, the White House began acting as though North Korea was already a nuclear power (something that was then not at all clear) to obscure the fact that the White House had chosen to twiddle its thumbs and look the other way as North Korea became a nuclear power. Like in Bush in Iraq and Hastert and Foley, the problem was left to smolder in cover-up and denial. Until now.
And, as The Financial Times of London points out, Washington's weakness is matched by Pyongyang's.
Yet the test is more a sign of weakness than of strength. Though analysing what goes on at the top of the isolationist regime is difficult, some analysts have speculated that Kim Jong Il is under internal pressure. The country is plagued by food shortages – exacerbated by a drop in food aid from China and other countries – and has seen economic sanctions erode its ability to earn foreign exchange. The US-inspired seizure of accounts last year at a bank in Macao used by the regime appears particularly to have angered Pyongyang.
North Korea is also sandwiched by two economic powerhouses: South Korea and China. Though according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the north has 1.1m under arms, its conventional military is poorly equipped and maintained.
North Korea has a population less than half the south's 49m, while its economy is an estimated 40 times smaller than that of the south. That would mean that the south's defence budget – put by the IISS at $23.5bn this year – is equal to the size of the North Korean economy.
And so we have two blundering countries opposed to each other, both with weak leadership, and both, it now seems, with functioning nuclear weapons.