When the secretary of state goes on five Sunday morning talk shows to deny that something is a crisis, it is a crisis. The administration has been playing down the gravity of North Korea's nuclear breakout, and for good reason. For now, there is little the administration can do. No point, therefore, in advertising our helplessness.
But there is no overestimating the seriousness of the problem. If we did not have so many of our military assets tied up in the Persian Gulf, we would today have carriers off the coast of Korea and be mobilizing reinforcements for our garrison there.
North Korea is about to go from a rogue state that may have one or two nuclear bombs hidden somewhere to one that is in the nuclear manufacturing business. And North Korea sells everything it gets its hands on.
This is serious stuff. And the clock is ticking. We have no idea how far along the North Koreans are on their uranium enrichment program. But we know that when they fire up their plutonium reprocessing plant, they will be months away from creating a real nuclear arsenal.
The problem is that we have few cards to play. Militarily we are not even in position to bluff. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was duty-bound to affirm America's capacity to fight two wars at once. Unfortunately, that capacity went by the boards at least a decade ago, and the North Koreans know it. It is precisely because they know it that they are using this window of opportunity, this moment of Iraqi distraction, to brazenly go nuclear.
Moreover, even if we were not preoccupied in Iraq, we might find ourselves self-deterred from doing anything militarily against North Korea. Yes, we could bomb the nuclear processing plant in Yongbyon. Problem is, that would not destroy Pyongyang's entire capacity for producing nuclear weapons, the way the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor destroyed Iraq's.
And given North Korea's propensity for using special operations, infiltration and sleeper agents (techniques it has used with success against South Korea), we have to imagine that it might retaliate with a smuggled nuclear weapon against American facilities or perhaps even against the American homeland. It might be suicidal. It is improbable. It is not impossible. That alone might deter us from a preemptive attack on Yongbyon.
But even if nukes were not a consideration, we would be deterred by North Korea's conventional military capacity. Unlike Iraq, it has a serious army, a million strong and possessing thousands of artillery tubes, many hidden in caves, many that can reach -- and reduce -- Seoul.
In other words, North Korea may already have passed the threshold to invulnerability from American attack. So, the administration has chosen a strategy of economic and diplomatic isolation. The idea is to squeeze the North Korean regime to the point where it can no longer function.
That could be done. China supplies nearly all of North Korea's energy and 40 percent of its foodstuffs. South Korea has significant investments in North Korea. International organizations provide a huge amount of food aid. Moreover, North Korea has only a few major harbors. They could be blockaded. If China and South Korea were to cut off North Korea, it could not survive.
The problem with this scenario is that South Korea and China do not want to play ball. They fear the chaos that might ensue. The American containment strategy was already falling apart on Day One, when both the South Korean president and the president-elect criticized it.
The Chinese have been even more recalcitrant. They show no inclination to deny North Korea what it needs to survive. Even more ominously, Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reports that the Chinese have just shipped 20 tons of highly specialized chemicals used in extracting plutonium from spent reactor fuel.
What to do when your hand is so poor? Play the trump. We do have one, but we dare not speak its name: a nuclear Japan. Japan cannot long tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea. Having once lobbed a missile over Japan, North Korea could easily hit any city in Japan with a nuclear-tipped weapon. Japan does not want to live under that threat.
We should go to the Chinese and tell them plainly that if they do not join us in squeezing North Korea and thus stopping its march to go nuclear, we will endorse any Japanese attempt to create a nuclear deterrent of its own. Even better, we would sympathetically regard any request by Japan to acquire American nuclear missiles as an immediate and interim deterrent. If our nightmare is a nuclear North Korea, China's is a nuclear Japan. It's time to share the nightmares.