An increasingly desperate North Korea announced Sunday it has nuclear weapons and not, as it admitted last month, simply a program to build them.
If true, this chilling turning point in the half-century-long Korean conflict could lead to difficult choices:
1. A nuclear-skittish Japan may decide it now needs such a weapon itself as a deterrent, leading to an arms race with China and increased military tension between Asia's two giants as they compete for influence in the region.
2. South Korea, whose defenses include 37,000 American troops and a US threat of nuclear retaliation, may just decide to meet many of North Korea's demands in the face of potential nuclear blackmail.
3. President Bush, who appears on the verge of ordering an invasion of Iraq for, among other things, merely a suspected nuclear-weapons program, may feel public pressure to treat North Korea the same. Even if Mr. Bush resists such pressure, he would likely push US-China relations to the limit by demanding Beijing use its leverage over its communist ally and force the North to give up its nukes.
Such scenarios reveal the complex power relations of Northeast Asia (even leaving out Russia), and the difficulty of dealing with this odd, cold-war remnant called North Korea.
The famine-struck nation of dictator Kim Jong Il has been confessing much lately, hoping to get money for its starving people. In response to its admission of a nuclear program last month, the US and its allies decided last Thursday to cut off oil shipments to North Korea. That likely led it to "confess" it had the bomb.
This announcement could just be bluster and bluff. But without knowing for sure, the US and others will need to act as if the North has now joined the world's nuclear club. Unlike Iraq, however, North Korea is unlikely to slip a weapon of mass destruction to Al Qaeda. And China, in theory, can check any North Korean move that upsets China's interests. On those two points, Bush need not threaten the North as he is Iraq.
Japan, for now, is choosing a missile defense system instead of nuclear deterrence. And South Korea may just slough off any blackmail, while the US and China try to talk Mr. Kim out of his nukes. A collective "No!" to North Korea is the best way for now to either call its bluff or to call it to account.