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The nuclear factor in U.S. elections

Seismological and radiological sensors in East Asia detected an underground test of a nuclear weapon somewhere in north-central North Korea last night, and North Korea's official news agency reported early this morning that indeed North Korea had successfully tested a nuclear weapon and was now a member of the exclusive club of nations known to possess nuclear weapons ...

This is a story the Bush administration and a lot of other people don't not want to see in print; and fortunately for all of us, it has not occurred.

However, unless something causes North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to abruptly change course, experts agree that North Korea might have a nuclear weapon to test in the near future.

And, given the unfortunate precedent of a terrorist attack in Madrid earlier this year influencing an election's outcome, Americans must be concerned that the actions of a foreign power could do the same here.

Were North Korea to detonate a nuclear weapon before the presidential election in November, two important questions would need to be asked:

+ Did the United States do enough to stop North Korea from acquiring the bomb?

+ Was the Bush administration's focus on Iraq the best use of American resources in the war on terror?

Many North Korea watchers agree that the United States has been disengaged from North Korea since Bush's election and that this, and a lack initiative, have been worrisome. They disagree over:

+ Whether U.S. policy has contributed to North Korea's insecurities, making it feel it must have a nuclear deterrent to be taken seriously;

+ Or whether North Korea is simply a rogue state that would have developed nuclear weapons no matter what U.S. policy had been, and would have cheated on any new agreement.

Those who take the first view say the United States should engage North Korea as it has China, and that Kim will lay down his nuclear weapons if the Washington provides inducements and a promise not to invade.

Those who take the second view say the United States should not trust Kim enough to sign new agreements, and that the U.S. administration will likely have to resort to threats, sanctions or force to ensure North Korea does not acquire or spread nuclear weapons or technology.

While it would be fair to say the breakdown of the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea began on President Clinton's watch, North Korea's withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, its kicking out of international monitoring agents, its removal of 8,000 spent fuel rods for reprocessing, and possibly the nation's actual nuclear weaponization have taken place on President Bush's watch.

Were North Korea to join the nuclear club between now and November, how would American voters judge Bush policy on North Korea and on Iraq?

Bush would be left with three tough choices:

+ He could invade North Korea or strike its nuclear facilities. This would alienate the international community and Americans who question the use of force and fear American overreach while two nation-building projects remain unfinished in Afghanistan and Iraq.

+ He could combine condemnation with a diplomatic approach that could include sanctions. This could leave him vulnerable to attacks from Democrats and possibly from his party's right wing.

+ He could condemn North Korea but reluctantly accept the reality of another nuclear power _ refocusing U.S. efforts on preventing proliferation, as has been done with India and Pakistan.

None of these options is attractive for a president who is basing his re-election campaign largely on a theme of being a strong president who will keep America safe.

While Iraq was an important American concern and it is very good that Saddam Hussein is gone, North Korea's demonstration of a nuclear capabilities would strongly suggest that America's war in Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time. Given the Kim regime's unpredictability, its penchant for doing almost anything (including selling narcotics) for hard currency, and the relatively advanced state of its nuclear and missile technology, North Korea was clearly where American antiproliferation and antiterrorism efforts should have been focused, in particular since 9/11.

This omission could leave the door open for the 2004 presidential election to be influenced by foreign forces, as Spain's were. The Bush administration's policy toward North Korea since 2001, and Iraq since 2003, has put such cards in Kim Jong Il's hands. Whether he'll choose to play them or not remains unclear.

Gregory J. Moore is assistant professor of political science and East Asian studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.