I suppose I should make some substantive comment…
I don’t think that the North Korean test is significant in military terms. We knew (or suspected so strongly that we had to plan as if we knew) that the North Koreans had built atomic bombs. That they would test one is completely rational, given that they probably weren’t quite sure that the device would work. The detonation of the bomb changes nothing, absolutely nothing, about the current deterrent relationship between the United States and North Korea. If the US were going to attack NK over its nuclear program, we would have started bombing four years ago, or ten years ago. Moreover, if North Korea wanted to commit national suicide by launching an attack against South Korea or Japan or the United States, it could have done so last with with nukes and at any other point in its history with conventional forces.
Diplomatically things are a little bit more interesting. The North Korean test will substantially strengthen the hand of Shinzo Abe and others who have argued for a more assertive Japanese foreign policy. Even if we don’t see Article 9 go away, it will certainly be reinterpreted such that it could allow offensive military action against North Korea. There’s also going to be some pressure on South Korea to develop its own weapon, and I don’t really have a sense of how that’s going to play out. As long as South Korea is under the US deterrent umbrella, nukes don’t really do it that much good, although they might reinforce the deterrent relationship, just as French and British nukes did in the 1960s. The situation that could become really problematic is that between Taiwan and the PRC; if Taiwan decided that this was the time to try to go nuclear (and there’s no evidence that they’re thinking along those lines), then things could get ugly really quick.
Any diplomatic effort to get North Korea to give up its nukes depends almost entirely on the stances of South Korea, Russia, and China. None of the three, as Matt has pointed out, have much interest in seeing North Korea collapse. I’m skeptical that they’ll be willing to put much effort into a diplomatic effort when the military situation hasn’t substantially changed, especially given that a collapse of North Korea is probably the most dangerous turn that this situation could take in the short term. We will see more careful monitoring of North Korean land and maritime trade, in an effort to ensure that nuclear material and technology don’t leave the hermit kingdom.
In other news, Wretchard of Belmont Club is an idiot. He writes:
Now all the folks who wanted 400,000 troops in Iraq and thought the transformational initiative which emphasized technology and precision weapons were a crock may grudgingly conclude that maybe Donald Rumsfeld did have a point. The US requires a full-spectrum fighting force able to engage the AQ and North Korea. A world power like America needs to think of more than one theater of operations, always. Also critics may now remember how, unremarked, the administration pulled US troops back from the DMZ, which if they were still there would make them sitting ducks. As it is, they far enough back to give them a chance. Also, the unnoticed development of facilities at Guam have given the US a capability it now needs. Not everything, but something. That plus BMD defense. Maybe I’m looking for silver linings where none are to be found. But just maybe not everyone was asleep.
There’s so much wrong here that it would take WAY too long to deal with it all, but briefly I’ll note a) that few people argued against the transformational initiative, while a lot of people argued that trying to occupy a country like Iraq while simultaeneously making that transformation was a really, really terrible idea, b) that “thinking about more than one theater of operations” significantly predates Rumsfeld’s tenure, and c) that the discussion of US troop disposition in North Korea is a non-sequitur; I can recall no one arguing that moving the troops was a bad idea (it was certainly publicized at the time), and it won’t have the slightest effect on the crisis unless the US decides to start bombing, an eventuality that I find extremely unlikely for the reasons outlined above.
Keep searching for the silver lining, Wretchard; I’ll allow that it’s no easy task.