Tue, Oct 10, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Nuke test heralds new age of danger

North Korea claims it completed an underground nuclear test yesterday morning.

Everyone knew this day might come, but that does not mitigate the awful dread with which we meet the news that Pyongyang has joined the nuclear club.

When the Cold War ended, people welcomed what they believed was a respite from the threat of nuclear annihilation. At that time, alarmists warned that the world had become no safer. They noted that there were still thousands of nuclear weapons around the world. They pointed to nuclear tests by India and Pakistan as evidence that a nuclear conflict in our time remained a distinct possibility.

Most people laughed off such concerns, ridiculing the commentators as fearmongers.

Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. These were followed by the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. Next came a series of terrorist attacks -- from Bali to London. The fearmongers, now the respected talking heads of the day, warned that it was just a matter of time until a nuclear attack was carried out by terrorists.

Nukes were a clear and present danger once again.

So when Iran and North Korea ratcheted up their efforts to build nuclear weapons, it was easy to be concerned. Diplomacy -- endless summits, joint communiques, tough resolutions -- made no progress in convincing Pyongyang or Tehran to talk.

And now North Korea -- a dystopia of totalitarian madness -- appears to be a nuclear power.

For anyone living in the Asia-Pacific region, there are few events that could have such a profound impact. A major, protracted conflict involving some of the world's most powerful countries and economies is now a distinct possibility.

The stability enjoyed in East Asia since the cessation of hostilities in the Korean War has been turned into uncertainty. The security relationship between Japan, China, South Korea, North Korea, Russia and the US will now begin to change drastically.

This is a situation that poses serious challenges for Taiwan. Even if yesterday's test does not lead to conflict, its repercussions will be felt for years.

Taiwan has long lived in the shadow of a hostile nuclear power, but even here there was a sense of stability. Few believed that a war with China was possible, or likely. These feelings were predicated on the belief that Beijing had no compelling reason to attack, that simple economics made it unthinkable: Why kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

Pyongyang's actions have not directly affected the cross-strait relationship, but all of Taiwan's neighbors are directly involved.

South Korea, long accustomed to the dangers posed by its northern neighbor, must reassess its policies toward the North, as well as its attitudes toward Japan and the US.

Japan will never be the same. Hardliners in Tokyo began to actively push for constitutional changes and military modernization after North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan in 1998. The nuclear test will accelerate that process, putting increased pressure on Tokyo's fragile relations with Beijing.

Meanwhile, China has been embarrassed by the failure of its efforts to defuse this crisis. Because of disastrous policy choices and a lack of new options, the US relied on Beijing to pressure Pyongyang into talking rather than acting itself. China failed.

And the Bush administration, already so preoccupied with other foreign policy disasters that it had little time for Taiwan, will direct almost all of its regional attention to Pyongyang.

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