The Korean crisis has once again captured the world's headlines. North Korea's announcement of a nuclear explosion on October 9 came after years of repeated claims by Pyongyang's rulers that it reserved the right to develop nuclear weapons, to counter Washington's hostile intent.
Several days after the explosion, one question remained unanswered - was the explosion in fact a failure, or even a fake? Within a few hours of the blast, Russia seemed convinced that a nuclear test had been carried out, and estimated its strength at between 5 and 15 kilotons. On the other hand, South Korea, France and the United States were more circumspect, suggesting that the explosion measured less than one kiloton, far smaller than the 12.5 kiloton bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.
Whatever the truth about the nature and scale of the test, one thing is clear. Pyongyang's motive for the explosion, as for so many of its past actions, is to pressure the United States to enter into direct negotiations. The North Korean regime is desperate to extract further economic and security concessions. In a word, it wants to ensure its survival.
North Korea has been described as a starving, friendless, isolated nation of 23 million people, and its "dear" leader, Kim Jong-il as vain, reclusive and paranoid. Yet behind the invective and periodic tantrums lies a consistent strategy, designed to prop up the regime in the face of immense economic difficulties at home and implacable hostility abroad.
For its part, the United States, despite much bravado, appears to have limited options. North Korea has gone much further than before in its incremental attempts to acquire a nuclear arsenal. The response thus far does not amount to a great deal: a small and temporary reduction of South Korean aid, a stiff verbal rebuke from China, unilateral sanctions by Japan, and the US threat of tough financial and other sanctions to be imposed by the UN Security Council, which Russia and China will substantially dilute. Hardly the apocalypse that some may have expected.
Yet the situation remains highly dangerous. Notwithstanding the constraints bearing upon both Pyongyang and Washington as they consider their next moves, it is not beyond the realm of the possible that one of them will seriously miscalculate and provoke the other into a pre-emptive or retaliatory military strike. Such a move would in all likelihood bring armed hostilities to the entire North-East Asian region, and may over time provoke a regional nuclear arms race.
The simple truth is that the non-proliferation regime has been seriously, if not fatally, weakened. The actions of would-be proliferators, notably Iran and North Korea, have exposed the regime's weakness, namely the idea that non-nuclear weapons states can be indefinitely prevented from pursuing nuclear ambitions, while nuclear weapons states maintain and even strengthen their nuclear arsenals.
The policy of nuclear apartheid, fragile at the best of times, now lies in ruins. Indeed, a key lesson that several governments have drawn from the Iraq war - one that has perilous implications for regional and global security - is the opposite of what the United States intended. Saddam Hussein was removed from power, it is argued, because he didn't have nuclear weapons. Had he had them, Iraq would not have been invaded.
How, then, might the international community respond to the Korean crisis? Two responses, one short-term and the other long-term, suggest themselves. It is doubtful, to say the least, that sanctions will have the desired effect. Though they will inflict considerable pain on the already suffering people of North Korea, they are most unlikely to weaken the regime, or severely curtail its military plans. Indeed, they may stiffen the regime's resolve to acquire a full-fledged nuclear capability.
Despite periodic setbacks, the "sunshine" policy pursued by South Korea, the six-party talks and especially the negotiating framework developed during the Clinton years, suggest a more promising strategy for the future.
The North Korean regime is more likely to be loosened from its present grip on power by the slow but persistent attempts to change the economic and psychological landscape inside North Korea, than by the external application of brute force. US allies, not least Australia, may have an important role to play in keeping open lines of communication and making the case for such a long-term strategy.