The Democratic People's Republic of Korea's detonation of a nuclear test device on Tuesday caught folks off guard. The test itself was, of course, not unexpected -- the preparations having been visible from space for weeks. Not inexplicable either was the timing of the test -- just hours before President Barack Obama's State of the Union Address, where an act of North Korean defiance would have maximum impact on the U.S. national conversation, and a safe few days before the anniversary of the birth of leader Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il (a.k.a., the Day of the Shining Star).
As for the detonation, my feelings are congratulatory -- as in "Congratulations, DPRK. You have replicated the technological sophistication of the United States of the late 1940s, at the cost of only the loss of membership in the family of humankind and most of the basic necessities of human life."
In order to keep a sense of proportion about the North Korean regime, one needs to adopt an attitude of sad resignation. Fearful of the outside world and of each other, the North Koreans pursue a weapons capability with the very reasonable goal of putting their enemies at a risk level equal to the one the DPRK faces. Of course, each step in the direction of such a capability boxes the leadership in more and more. Eventually the DPRK will produce, Amaterasu knows when, a nuclear-tipped long-range ballistic missile. What is certain is by that time they do they will be working on it by candlelight, chewing on leather for the flavor.
Japan and its U.S. ally are demanding a reversal of the programs building toward a North Korean nuclear-tipped ICBM. Given the fundamental insecurity of the DPRK regime, both on psychological and politico-economic grounds, such demands are ludicrous. The best anyone could hope for is a suspension of ongoing research & development -- and the only way that could happen would be if all in the United States collectively declared themselves utterly terrified by the awesome capabilities of the mighty and legitimate Kim regime.
Of course, for reasons of both politics and sanity, the United States cannot play the role of the elephant terrified of the mouse. Instead the U.S. plays the role of the exasperated adult, scolding the misbehaving child:
"...the Government of North Korea should abandon and dismantle its provocative ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, cease its proliferation activities, and come into immediate compliance with all United Nations Security Council resolutions and its commitments under the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks"Yes, the DRPK should do these things, in order that the world might be more convenient for a hyperpower with a short attention span. Funny thing, though, the leaders of the DPRK will not do what they should, and moreover would not be leaders for very long if they did.
My thinking on the need for greater realism as to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs is best reflected in the recent essay by Dr. Muthiah Alagappa, "North Korean Nuclear Test: Implications for Asian Security," published by PacNet (no URL for the essay yet - but the PacNetters assure me that there will be one soon). At the same time, I am sympathetic to the Nth country problem outlined by Dr. Jeffrey Lewis in his essay "Friends with Benefits" published by Foreign Policy last week (Link -- the South Koreans did what in 2000?!?). Indeed, I am on record at the same publication for concern pre-election about Japan's capacity to become a Nth nation, a view which earned me the scorn, probably deserved, of Dr. Michael Green. (Link)
And the above image? It is a shot through the glass at the Perry Hall in Kurihama (Link - J) of an 1854 woodcut showing a fearful and tear-stained Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his similarly awe-stricken and crying officers cringing in terror as they present a letter from U.S. king Millard Fillmore to the mighty magistrate (bugyo) of Uraga.
When it comes to surrealist, seemingly delusional misrepresentations of one's country's stature in international affairs (Link) pretty much everyone's been there, done that.
Just remember what happened to the bakufu that greenlighted the above representation of Japan's place in the world.