There seems to be quite a lot of discussion in the US about who needs to be blamed for the failure to prevent North Korea gaining nuclear weapons. The conservative response is to call Clinton's Agreed Framework a joke and argue that this was the crucial failure; this essentially consists of posting up this picture as often as they can. By contrast, liberals are describing this as a failure of the Bush administration thanks to its abandonment of the Agreed Framework. To my mind the Bush administration was faced with two unpleasant but plausibly effective options; fighting or appeasing. The first would probably involve massive casualties to all concerned or just to the North Korean civilians if it took the form of economic sanctions but would establish a credible cost to defying us. The second could only delay the bomb as Uranium enrichment was still allowed and went against the natural inclinations of a tough talking President but would probably have meant that we would not have had a test yet.
The big problem was that they chose a third option that could never be effective. Talk tough but do nothing. This was a result of other priorities following 9/11, the fact no one would offer a course of action they could claim would be anything but a least bad (there was no 'send a small army and be greeted with flowers' plan) and uncertainty regarding how to balance confronting North Korea with keeping South Korea on side. This is a similar problem to that in Iran but, for better or worse, without European nations who aren't too proud to talk. The line in the New York Sun blog that having them negotiate with Iran was a favour to the European nations is demonstrated as ridiculous if you think about whether allowing Australia to take the North Korean issue would be a favour as well.
However, there is only a limited function to discussing how we got here. A more important question is what we do next. Frum, in a much better article than the one I discussed earlier, gives a three point plan:
1) Speed up the work on missile defence: Alykhan tells me that with layers of different missile defence solutions this can be effective but I'm yet to be convinced. Brecher has a good sceptical view of the state of missile defence. Either way, I think the North Koreans can be confident that we are infinitely less likely to invade if they're threatening to nuke Tokyo so our missile defence, while it could be important for our defence, doesn't mitigate the effects on the region of a nuclear armed North Korea.
2) End economic aid to North Korea: a major reservation I have is over how effective it is likely to be with a regime that we know has starved hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of its people to death before and has neither collapsed nor apparently been sobered by that experience. Also, how important is Western aid? I'm led to believe that most of the aid to the DPRK comes from China. Finally, there is something deeply immoral about economic sanctions; they are the modern form of WWII strategic bombing, designed to hurt your enemies civilians until their leadership surrenders from the heartbreak of it all, and have roughly the same record of failure.
3) Bring East Asian countries into NATO: this sounds like a good idea to make our involvement in any war they initiate in the future assured and thereby make deterrence more credible. However, I doubt it would have the effect Frum argues it would in effectively punishing China. They are opposing North Korea's nuclear programme, the problem is that they are dragging their feet, and are likely to see us taking action to square off with them as unjustified and provocative; this will most likely make them less rather than more co-operative.
One possibility is that the test was either a fake or failed. There are varied accounts of the size of the blast from seismic data and Alykhan sees the rationale to faking it from the perspective of scientists wanting to please the Dear Leader. Regardless of this the nuclear weapon is still some distance from being usable. Most of the Manhattan project, after all, was not about producing a bomb but producing one which could be deployed as a bomb. This makes some form of military action more plausible.
Simon Jenkins is arguing for air strikes as an effective and less destructive response than economic sanctions with a populace that will starve so quickly. I have found his articles strikingly bad recently but his argument here is remarkably cogent when it sticks to North Korea. A big question is whether we can do anything to his missile and nuclear production sites, there has been a lot of study of the feasibility of air strikes against Iran but I know of no such study on North Korea. There is also a possibility Simon Jenkins does not discuss in his article, that North Korea might respond by attacking the South. However, it remains the most credible response which might prevent North Korea becoming a nuclear power and make Iran think twice.
So, at the end of this quick survey of what has happened, is happening and could happen in North Korea I think the most plausible response left is that of airstrikes. However, I do not expect this, or much else, to happen. The failures in the postwar management of Iraq have left further military entanglements politically unfeasible. I expect that both North Korea and Iran will both wind up with nuclear weapons and the West will, in the end, prevaricate and do nothing.
A theme I will develop in a big post at some point is that the chain store paradox of power, deterrence, could have been well served by invading Iraq and demonstrating that we would not stand for those who defy our will and pursue courses of action which threaten the international order. However, our obvious failure in the postwar period has given our populations the false impression that foreign interventions must be Vietnam and made wars impossible at least until there is a new US President who can separate himself from the perception of incompetence hanging over this one. Iran and North Korea understand this and it underlies the rationale behind their nuclear weapons programmes.
To conclude, this crisis came about thanks to a failure to face up to the situation despite loud proclamations of its gravity. The best solution is to end that prevarication and demonstrate that the West is no paper tiger. However, I do not expect this to happen.