The fallout from North Korea

By Page Rockwell
Published February 10, 2005 9:46PM (EST)

So, North Korea has nukes. Was it a foregone conclusion?

The country's official pronouncement today that it possesses weapons of mass destruction has more or less met with a big shrug from Washington. (Maybe North Korea had already tipped its hand enough with repeated breaches since 1993 of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.)

"We have for some time taken into account of the capacity of the North Koreans to perhaps have a few nuclear weapons," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shrugged, while CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux noted, "The State Department wants to put this into perspective."

For his part, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Washington Post he's not sure North Korea has nukes at all. (He does know a thing or two about the issue, though: Before he joined the Bush administration, he was making $190,000 a year as a non-executive director of Zurich-based ABB, the engineering goliath that sold North Korea two light water nuclear reactors in 2000.)

North Korea's talked tough before, but maybe it's a bigger deal now than U.S. leaders wish to let on -- in part because there may be little they can do about it at this point.

Though the North Korean government has been known to sound insane, few experts believe it has an itchy trigger finger (launching a nuclear attack would essentially be suicidal). But the fallout of today's news could extend far beyond the rogue nation north of the DMZ. It follows last week's revelation that uranium uncovered from Libya's dismantled nuclear program likely came from North Korea. The discovery unnerved the Heritage Foundation's Peter Brookes, a former Pentagon official and military intelligence analyst who wrote last week that if the North Koreans are sharing their weapons material and know-how with Libya, they might be doing the same with Syria, Iran -- or an independent terrorist organization. In any case, it's another official blow to efforts to stop nuclear proliferation around the globe. North Korea has emerged as the ninth known nuke-holder, and other nations on Washington's problem list may not be far behind.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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