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North Korea Goes Nuclear

An authoritarian, unpredictable regime now has the bomb. What are the implications for the U.S. and the world?

By David E. Sanger in Washington

North Korea may be a starving, friendless, authoritarian nation of 23 million people, but it certainly got the world's attention last month when it exploded its first nuclear weapon.

What concerned the United States and the rest of the world was not just the entry of another nation into the nuclear club, but also North Korea's habit of selling whatever weapons systems it develops to anyone willing to pay for them. So while the obvious fear is that North Korea might use nuclear weapons against its neighbors or other nations, the larger worry in this era of terrorism is: Who else might end up with North Korean nuclear technology?

The underground test was conducted October 9 in the mountains above the town of Kilju. Experts say the explosion was small for a nuclear blast, which might indicate that it was only partially successful.

Five days after the test, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for economic sanctions to punish North Korea. "This action by the United Nations, which was swift and tough, says that we are united in our determination to see to it that the Korean Peninsula is nuclear-weapons free," said President Bush.

But the U.N. resolution was widely criticized for being too weak and largely unenforceable. (In fact, both South Korea and China have indicated they intend to maintain some economic ties with the North.) Meanwhile, the North Koreans announced that they considered the sanctions a "declaration of war," and there were indications that they intended to test a second nuclear device.

President Bush has said he will rely on diplomacy, not military force, to disarm North Korea. No one doubts that the U.S. could swiftly defeat North Korea. But the fear is that its 1-million-man army could easily destroy Seoul, South Korea's capital, only 35 miles from the North Korean border—and put the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea at risk.

Tensions between North Korea and the U.S. go back more than 50 years. All of Korea had been occupied by Japan from 1910 until 1945. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Army occupied the northern half of the country and installed a Communist regime, while Allied forces assumed control over what became South Korea.

The Korean War

In 1950, North Korea, backed by the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and China, invaded the South. In response, the U.N. called up an international force to defend South Korea. About 90 percent of the troops and equipment came from the U.S. In 1953, the U.N. and North Korea signed an armistice which ended the fighting. However, North and South Korea have never signed a peace treaty, which is why American troops remain on the peninsula.

In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union and other Communist regimes collapsed, leaving North Korea as one of the world's few remaining Communist states. Its dictator, Kim Jong Il, known as "Dear Leader," took power when his father, Kim Il Sung (the "Great Leader"), died in 1994.

North Korea's economy began a catastrophic decline in the late 1980s, with the loss of its Soviet patron. Around the same time, a series of disastrous droughts and floods led to massive crop failures. The country has since relied heavily on international aid to feed itself. By some estimates, as many as 2 million people have died of starvation over the last decade, even as the regime spends a fortune to maintain its vast military and its nuclear program.

South Korea, by contrast, has transformed itself in the last 20 years into one of the world's most vibrant democracies, with an educated population and a booming high-tech economy. (Eighty percent of South Koreans have broadband Internet access at home, the highest rate in the world.)

Evidence of North Korea's economic collapse is everywhere. There are almost no cars on the road, even on the biggest highways. Because of power shortages, electricity is turned off in most of Pyongyang at night. The streets of the capital are lined with monuments to founder Kim Il Sung, who was revered almost like a god, and to Kim Jong Il.

"It's kind of like a medieval kingdom, with Kim Jong Il deciding just about everything," says Ralph Hassig, co-author of North Korea Through the Looking Glass. "If I had to sum up the whole country in one word, I think 'stifling' would be it."

American spy satellites saw North Korea building a good-size nuclear reactor in the early 1980s, and by the early 1990s, the C.I.A. estimated that the country could have one or two nuclear weapons. But a series of diplomatic efforts to "freeze" the nuclear program—including a 1994 accord signed during the administration of President Bill Clinton— ultimately broke down. Three years ago, North Korea threw out the few remaining weapons inspectors living at its nuclear complex in Yongbyon.

The Other Challenge: Iran

The North Korean crisis comes as the world tries to deal with Iran—another hostile, autocratic, and unpredictable regime—and its suspected nuclear-weapons program. The broader issue is concern over the growing number of nuclear powers: The more countries that have nuclear weapons, the bigger the risks for the world at large—especially when these weapons end up in the hands of nations that might sell them to terrorists.

The North Korean test puts the number of countries with nuclear weapons at nine. The other members of the nuclear club are the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel, which has never acknowledged having nuclear weapons but is widely believed to have them.

The North's decision to set off a nuclear device could profoundly change the politics of Asia. The test occurred only a week after Japan installed a new, more nationalistic Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. (Japan—which saw two of its cities incinerated by atom bombs in 1945—has a ban on possessing nuclear weapons.)

It's not yet clear what the impact will be on South Korean attempts to forge better relations with the North. China, which has been North Korea's main ally for 60 years, also condemned the test.

Millions Of Refugees?

While none of the nations in the region want to see a nuclear-armed North Korea, they're also afraid of taking measures that would threaten the regime there. If the North Korean government collapses, that could send millions of starving refugees into South Korea and China, a prospect both nations fear.

Figuring out North Korea's intentions has always been difficult. But most experts say that Kim's first priority is the survival of his government, and that he may think that North Korea needs a nuclear weapon as a deterrent against attack by its larger, richer neighbors (South Korea, China, and Japan) as well as the United States.

"The nuclear test is a response to the threat that North Korea feels," says Bruce Cumings, a professor of history at the University of Chicago and an expert on North Korea. "It's entirely real. It's not a figment of their imagination. They were put in the axis of evil. We have nuclear weapons pointed at them."

Others wonder if North Korea is hoping to use this nuclear crisis for leverage in negotiations. "Every time they've played this crisis-escalation strategy with us before, it's worked," says Scott Snyder, a Korea expert with the Asia Foundation in Washington.

Three years ago, President Bush said the U.S. "will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea." Now that North Korea appears to have those weapons, it's unclear what the U.S. can do, or is willing to do, about the situation. And what that means for the security of the Korean Peninsula, the U.S., and the world remains a big question mark.