For nearly as long as he has been in power, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il has taken an adversarial position against almost everyone else, individuals and countries alike. He has isolated his own people from the rest of the world, ruling with a heavy hand that has left the vast majority of North Koreans impoverished and reliant upon Kim Jong-Il for their basic needs. His bellicosity has flared up at various times and to various levels over his tenure, but this week's testing of nuclear weapons reached new heights. The United States and its allies must respond swiftly and strongly.
Since the Bush administration, North Korea has indicated its desire to join the exclusive club of countries that possess nuclear power. Given the country's aggressive stance against nearly everyone else, the world has not responded positively to that effort. But North Korea's iron-clad secrecy has made keeping track of those nuclear efforts nearly impossible. With last Monday's test - and indications that more are to come - the stakes in gathering intelligence and containing North Korea's nuclear efforts could not be higher. It is a challenge of the highest proportion.
In easy missile range of South Korea and Japan, North Korea is in a position to start a dangerous conflagration that will result in nothing but pain and suffering for all involved. There is every reason for those countries at greatest risk - and their allies - to stand strongly against such an escalation, but it is exceedingly difficult to understand how to proceed in negotiations with such an unstable leader as Kim Jong-Il. That is the challenge the Obama administration faces today, and it is not one that its military and diplomatic leaders can take lightly. Thus far, they do not appear to be.
Both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have had sharp words about North Korea's nuclear ambitions and demonstrations. The same is true for leaders of countries around the world. They appear to be having little effect on North Korea, however, and that has been the perpetual challenge in diplomacy with the country - leading to its membership in the Bush administration's "Axis of Evil." It is nevertheless essential that Kim Jong-Il's nuclear aspirations be contained - and quickly.
Thus far, allies have focused some effort on curbing other countries from shipping materials used in manufacturing nuclear weapons to North Korea. That is a good start, as is the threat of "consequences" that Clinton has made. But articulating what those consequences are - and ensuring they do not inappropriately and unfairly affect the already isolated and oppressed citizens of North Korea requires a delicate approach. Obama and his diplomatic team have their work cut out for them.
As with previous nuclear muscle-flexing demonstrations from North Korea, it is difficult to tell how serious this latest show has been. But with all unstable rulers who possess at least some nuclear power, it is essential to respond swiftly and with appropriate strength. Determining just what that is will be the challenge of the Obama administration in the days to come.