- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 10, 2006

For a few brief hours yesterday, most of the world sounded, for once, sane. The news that North Korea had detonated a nuclear bomb startled friend and foe into something resembling collective fear, and if not trembling, at least concern.

But at the end of the day, as the clich goes, there was growing belief that the explosion under a mountain in Hamgyong province in the northeastern corner of the Korean peninsula was not a nuclear explosion after all, but the detonation of conventional explosives intended to ignite the nuclear fuel. The experiment failed. The world could return to its day job of despising George W. Bush.

The North Koreans were trying to explode a plutonium-based device, more difficult to manage than the enriched-uranium bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki 61 years ago. The seismic readings, which can calibrate the difference between an earthquake and an underground explosion, indicated a blast with only a fraction of the killing power of the bomb on Hiroshima. Bad, but not awful, as explosions are measured.

If the blast was only of conventional explosive, it suggests that the rogues in Pyongyang are having trouble making their infernal machine actually work. “There was a seismic event that registered about 4 on the Richter scale,” a high U.S. official familiar with the intelligence findings told Bill Gertz of The Washington Times, “but it still isn’t clear whether it was a nuclear test. You can get that kind of seismic reading from high explosives.”

The humiliation of the North Koreans will be total if it turns out that this was only a big firecracker. Kim Jong-il, “the dear leader” of a miserable revolution, was praised yesterday as “a prodigious general, visionary demigod and the ‘Lodestar of the 21st Century.’” Not only that, he is the creator of the world’s goofiest haircut and the only lodestar in a tight union suit with the backdoor sewn shut. (Demigods never have to go to the bathroom, anyway, so why not?)

Developing a working bomb would give Kim immeasurable prestige, particularly in Asia, where resentment of the round-eyed Europeans (which includes North Americans) is tempered by envy and frustration. Kim’s minions have worked hard to build his image as a superman, once boasting that he made a hole-in-one four times in the first round of golf he ever played. All golfers tell tall tales, of course, but exploding a nuclear bomb would put the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on par with China and the United States — at least in the fevered North Korean imagination. Climbing down from such a claim would give Kim a hair day worse than usual, and that’s saying a lot.

The explosion, nuclear or not, inevitably changes the stakes in Asia, altering the balance of power, upsetting the oil states, confusing the stock exchanges, roiling currency markets, rattling Japan, sobering Europe, and embarrassing China and South Korea no end. Beijing and Seoul have insisted that they can “work” with the regime, and now they’re exposed as suckers for diplomatic sweet talk. The embarrassment is particularly acute in Seoul. “Under this situation,” a chastened President Roh Moo-hyun said yesterday, “it’s difficult for [North and South Korea] to maintain engagement policy.”

There’s fallout here for both Republicans and Democrats, which have been eagerly going after each other with chain, mail, mace, knife, club, rock and whatever else a determined pol can find to fashion as a weapon in the run-up to Nov. 7. As the possibility of a nuclear bomb becomes probability, thoughtful voters are likely to be more concerned about nuclear weapons available to the axis of evil than about who treated the House of Representatives as a bordello. Kim Jong-il may be the October surprise.

Pruden on Politics appears Tuesdays and Fridays.

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