Nearly 50 years have passed since the Cuban missile crisis. Generations of nuclear weapons have been created and retired. The Soviet Union has dissolved and Russia has risen. The EU has been organized and is now floundering. The Arab Spring has dawned and evolved. The Chinese economy has taken off.
Through it all, in violent fits and hopeful starts, the world has moved in the general direction of sanity and the peaceful resolution of conflict. The nuclear posturing of the Cold War is a spectre of the past except in Iran and North Korea, two nations run by men not the least bit interested in the opinion of the rest of the world.
In the past decade, North Korea (offended by U.S. President George W. Bushs Axis of Evil designation) has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, tested a nuclear weapon, and, after several rounds of talks, agreed once again to shut down its nuclear program. Then, in response to criticism of its launch of what it called a satellite and international observers believed was an intercontinental ballistic missile, the nation withdrew from talks, moved to resume its nuclear enrichment program and expelled nuclear inspectors from the country. In May 2009, North Korea detonated a nuclear device underground.
All of that took place while the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea was governed, non-democratically, by a deeply paranoid man whose actions often seemed unrelated to facts as they were understood by most of the other governments in the world.
Most recently, news reports out of North Korea have labeled as psychological warfare the Christmas tree-shaped towers a South Korean church group has raised two miles south of the border, warning, The enemy warmongers ... should be aware that they should be held responsible entirely for any unexpected consequences that may be caused by their scheme.
Now Kim Jong-il is dead, and the rogue nuclear state reportedly will be led by his youngest son, the twenty-something Kim Jong-un, who, like most young North Koreans, has been nurtured in almost total isolation from global ideas and developments.
What that might mean is anyones guess, although its hard to picture such a young man as a strong leader. Perhaps he will be amenable to greater contact with the outside world; perhaps he will fear it. Perhaps he will focus less on weaponry than his father did; perhaps he will see nuclear missiles and military might as his own chance to retain control of his position in his own country and of North Koreas security internationally. He certainly has been raised to hold that belief.
News reports of grief-stricken DPRK citizens are viewed with disbelief by westerners, but those citizens believe that Kim, and only Kim, has kept them safe. Greater exposure to outside ideas would benefit them greatly, but if Kim Jong-un nurtures fear instead of information, support for the nuclear program will remain strong.
The U.S. government and other democratic nations now have an opportunity to broker a different relationship with North Korea, one with greatly reduced nuclear tensions, but it will have to do so carefully. Any policy that enables the DPRK to maintain and improve its weaponry would be a grave error. Right now, North Korea is a sticking point in U.S. relations with China; eliminating that thorn would pay huge dividends.
Washington cannot waffle on North Koreas nuclear threat. It must act quickly and decisively during this brief window of opportunity. Internal politics cannot be allowed to get in the way. Nuclear weapons do not discriminate on the basis of U.S. political distinctions.