If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Or, in our case, if there's a crisis on the Korean Peninsula and the White House doesn't pay any attention, does it even really matter? That is a proposition the Bush administration seems increasingly determined to put to the test.
Watch very closely what's happening.
According to American satellite intelligence, North Korea is now more or less openly hauling those 8000 spent nuclear fuel rods off to be reprocessed into weapons grade plutonium and then, presumably, into nuclear warheads.
Let's be clear, this is exactly the act we were prepared to go to war in 1994 to prevent.
Now, why are they doing this? There are essentially two theories. One says that they want a deal, which would likely mean diplomatic normalization, various forms of economic aid, and some sort of non-aggression pact with the United States. Under this theory, they're upping the ante because they want to force us to bargain and bargain on their terms. In that case, making a big show of cranking up the nukes makes a lot of sense.
Then there's theory two: the North Koreans wouldn't mind having all those things too. But what they're really set on is getting the bomb, thinking -- not unreasonably -- that it's the one true guarantee against the military overthrow of their regime (and not a bad export crop either). They're using America's temporary distraction with Iraq to 'break out' of the nuclear box so that they can present the Americans with a fait accompli once we're done dealing with Iraq.
Actually, there's a subset of theory two. Some say the North Koreans were always determined to get nukes no matter what. Others point to the Bush administration's 'regime change' and preemption rhetoric as the trigger.
The truth is that we don't really know which of these possibilities is the case. In fact, the North Koreans probably don't either. We tend to over-determine the intentions of our adversaries. Most Korea experts think the North Korean leadership is divided between ardent militarists and others more eager for rapprochement, even at the expense of dumping the nukes. In truth, most think Kim Jong-Il probably tends toward that latter camp.
All of this is perhaps a long way of saying that this is a hell of a complicated situation.
But what are we doing about it? In a word, nothing.
The Bush administration has ruled out force as a means of solving the problem and pretty much ruled out talking too. And that leaves you pretty much with nothing. And that's what we're doing.
It would be one thing if this were a stand off and we could just wait them out. But it's hardly that. They are walking the ball down field in our direction. Each day we do nothing brings those nukes and plutonium one step closer. So again, what are we doing?
It's like that really, really uncomfortable phone call that you so don't want to make. So you just ... well, you just don't make it and you pretend the problem will go away.
The truth is that the administration has blustered its way into a box, ruling out its two basic options -- talking or fighting -- and giving the North Koreans time to strengthen their hand by advancing their plutonium production. They're putting on a cool demeanor like they've got a master plan, but by not admitting that what's happening is a crisis, they're simply letting the situation drift until a nuclear North Korea becomes a fait accompli.
At which point they'll blame it on Bill Clinton.
It's a pitiful situation.
Meanwhile, in a Saturday article which was quickly overwhelmed by the Shuttle catastrophe, the Washington Post reported pretty much exactly what TPM and The Nelson Report were reporting three weeks ago: that the Bush administration had known about the North Koreans' uranium enrichment program for two years before raising the matter with them.