Oct. 9, 2006, will become a day to remember. North Korea probably exploded a nuclear bomb on that day. Was it a test that failed? The future may provide answers, but the political fallout is clear and the impact substantial.
First, international pressure, led by the US, China, Russia and Japan, was not enough to prevent North Korea from taking this fateful step. A terrible dictatorship, a regime without a future and a dwarf in terms of power-politics defied the international giants. There is now justifiable outrage, and a call for sanctions is heard everywhere.
But what will be the effect of sanctions against a regime whose goal is survival through self-isolation -- a regime that will have no qualms in ruthlessly sacrificing its people? Also, can China really permit strong sanctions against its neighbor, a regime fighting for survival, one equipped with nuclear arms and missiles, and a humanitarian disaster of the highest order among its population? Just how credible and effective can sanctions be?
Second, the Security Council now looks like a paper tiger because its authority was successfully challenged by a worn-out regime. This fact will be noted everywhere, particularly in Tehran. If the boundaries between nuclear haves and have-nots becomes more permeable, or even dissolves altogether, the entire multilateral security system could be called into question. On Oct. 9, the gate leading down this path was thrown open.
Third, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, which was on the brink of toppling even before North Korea's actions, is threatening to disintegrate. A number of small and middle powers will now ask themselves a radically new question: if North Korea can be a nuclear power, why not us? If in these times of militarily-accomplished regime change real sovereignty can only be guaranteed by nuclear arms, why not go this route? A collapse of the non-proliferation regime will increase not only the risk of regional nuclear arms races, but also of a transfer of nuclear know-how and technology, increasing the risk of nuclear confrontation.
Fourth, the nuclear crisis triggered by North Korea demonstrates that the US -- for the first time since the Cold War's end -- is no longer the main player on the international scene and that its options are both limited and problematic. Following the hand-over from former president Bill Clinton to President George W. Bush, the US gave up its strategy of engaging the North Korean regime to moderate its behavior and thus unnecessarily reduced its own options. China has now become the main player in the North Korean crisis, and in the region as a whole. This will have a serious impact across the Pacific and cause the US to focus its strategic attention there. Europe might thus be called on to take up the slack in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, both sooner and on a much larger scale than Europeans suspect.
So what is to be done? There is no way around a strategy of engagement and containment with regard to North Korea or the crisis will escalate. The US will have to enter talks -- direct and bilateral if necessary. Indeed, it looks like that is what will be needed. China, humiliated by Kim Jong-il, will for the first time have to assume leadership in the region and resolve, or at least contain, the crisis.