In a season of deep gloom and dark fears, no recent news has stricken more terror into more hearts than the reports this week that North Korea had conducted its first nuclear weapons test. The reports remain unconfirmed, to be sure, and the size of the tremor suggests that the bomb, if that’s what it was, was at best rudimentary and very likely a dud. Nonetheless, the evidence suggests that North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated and eccentric dictatorships, is in the final stage of producing a nuclear arsenal. Moreover, it’s willing to defy international treaties, signed agreements and near-universal world outrage to go ahead with its tests. It’s not too soon to be scared. The age of nuclear chaos is upon us.
At a moment like this, it’s important not to let our appropriate fears turn into panic. Some of the dangers bandied about in the press in the past few days are genuine; others are bogus. We need to act with wisdom in the days ahead. We need to know how to separate the real threats from the fantasies.
What’s not likely any time soon is a North Korean nuclear attack on its neighbors. Pyongyang is neither suicidal nor messianic. It has no fantasies of imposing its will on the world or taking us all down with it. Mostly, what it’s wanted for the last six decades is to be left alone.
The greater threat is that North Korea’s step will pull the rug out from under a half-century of nuclear nonproliferation diplomacy. Every nuclear-wannabe regime now has the message that the world community’s vows to keep the atomic genie bottled up are hollow. If there’s an effective way to keep the bomb in responsible hands, nobody knows what it is. That message won’t be lost on Iran, nor on Al Qaeda and its various offshoots. And they do harbor messianic fantasies.
To counter that, what’s needed is a new international strategy that has the major powers — America, Europe, Russia, China — working with rather than against each other. That’s a tall order right now, but nothing less will do.