Today, Singapore, 12/10/2006
While the US is busy with Iraq and world terror, Iran and North Korea are boldly challenging the international community advancing their nuclear arms development programs with vigor. Whereas Iran has run into technical difficulties and still has between 2 to 7 years left (depending on whom you ask), North Korea crossed the threshold last Monday assuming the nuclear underground test conducted was not a hoax accomplished using chemical explosives. If a nuclear test did indeed take place, there is still time to act before North Korea will be able to weaponize a nuclear device and put it into a bomb or missile warhead. The implications of the recent developments are manifold and they are not only regional but decidedly global.
A Shia Iran armed with nuclear weapons poses a potential threat to its Sunni neighbors, Israel, Europe and in the service of a radical Islamic agenda, to the whole world. Fortunately the threat is not yet imminent. President Ahmadinejad’s regime still has a long and rough ride ahead before it gets to the stage at which North Korea is now, even if internationally contemplated sanctions are not overly stringent. That is, unless North Korea stretches out a helping hand with the nukes, as it has already done supporting the Iranian missile program.
Iran has miscalculated by giving its nuclear program a high public profile, thus inviting strong resistance and ultimately economic sanctions from the international community. Being a radical Islamic regime supportive of terror during a time in which the global war on terror is the central agenda of the US government further decreases Iran’s chances of completing its program. The fact that dropping oil prices are robbing the country of precious revenue needed to subsidize its impoverished economy, puts another spanner into the works and increases the vulnerability of the regime. The total economic impact of pursuing the nuclear program, may, in the end, shut it down obviating military measures against Iran although those will undoubtedly remain on US President Bush’s list of options should all else fail.
North Korea is primarily a regional threat, but the nuclear test just conducted requires an immediate response, if only to contain the potential economic fall-out caused by the uncertainty created. Asian countries supported by the international community and the US must make clear to North Korea that they are unwilling to accept a nation armed with nuclear arms that historically has sold to others every weapon it ever designed.
If Pyongyang is not forced to back down, other powers in the area will feel pressured to develop nuclear arms and it will take Japan less than two years to do so. A nuclear armed Japan will cause unease on the background of slowly reviving Japanese nationalistic tendencies, further increasing regional tensions. China, until now the only regional nuclear power, may for that reason only decide to finally rein in its North Korean neighbor in earnest. All China has to do is shut down North Korean oil imports and open its border to refugees (and not turn them back). Few developments put a regime under pressure as the massive departure of its citizens – East Germany’s regime started to cave in 1989 when East Germans left their country in droves via obliging Eastern European nations. The fact that North Korean is teetering on the brink economically, invites the application of sanctions but whatever coercive measures will be applied, they better be tweaked carefully to leave Pyongyang a door open for an honorable way out – a desperate regime with its back to the wall is the last thing the region needs now. Mediation efforts by Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton may just be what this crisis calls for.
The North Korean nuclear test has done a great service – it will now be impossible to ignore developments and procrastinate, neither with North Korea nor with Iran. If North Korea is let off the hook, Iran will certainly get the cue and soon we will have countries in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Turkey Egypt), Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) and Europe (Germany) gearing up to develop nuclear weapons to assure nuclear deterrence . It is a tragedy that the US is overextended and started to deal with the axis of evil at the wrong end. Unless the international community will get its act together quickly the ensuing nuclear arms race will put an economic damper on the next decade and make the world a much more dangerous place to live than it is already.