Kim Jong Il has long taken a personal interest in staging North Korea's biggest celebration: his birthday. Typically, Feb. 16 is marked by fireworks displays, mass loyalty pledges, forced pilgrimages to Kim's mountaintop birthplace and the sudden appearance of food--gift bags of candy and cookies for the children unlucky enough to be born in such an isolated, impoverished and tyrannical land.
But Kim has outdone himself this year. Days before his 63rd birthday this week, his government announced that, as has long been suspected by U.S. intelligence, North Korea has indeed built nuclear weapons "for self-defense." Though the bulletin ended years of speculation about the general state of Kim's nuclear-weapons program, the declaration was actually two blows in one: Pyongyang also announced it was pulling out of joint talks with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia and South Korea to keep the Korean peninsula nuclear-free. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, hoping to play down the news, called the announcement "unfortunate."
It is a lot more than that. For more than a decade, the U.S. and its allies have insisted that they would not allow Kim to acquire nuclear weapons, out of fear that he would sell nukes to anyone willing to pay for them and set off an Asian arms race. Pyongyang's declaration, while impossible to confirm, means Kim has probably realized his quest. A nuclear-armed North Korea means that President Bush's multilateral strategy for preventing Pyongyang from acquiring nukes has failed just as dramatically as Clinton's policy of direct engagement did a decade ago. It means that even when they are united, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, Seoul and Washington haven't found the right combination of levers to halt nuclear proliferation by a rogue state. And it probably means that even if the U.S. and its allies can coax Pyongyang back into negotiations--a big if--their hand is weakened by what the declaration described as Kim's "arsenal." At a time when the Bush Administration is trying to increase pressure on Iran over its purported ambitions to obtain the bomb, Washington confronts a more immediate crisis with a country that claims to have it already.
North Korea has been doing an elaborate fan dance about its nuclear assets for so long that many experts assumed it had gone nuclear months or even years ago. All that was lacking was an official confirmation, and so when that came, speculation centered on why Kim had decided to come clean. North Korea's 1,100-word declaration argues that the country had little choice but to brandish its weapons after several weeks of warmongering by Washington. It cited comments by the President in his Inaugural Address and Secretary Rice in her confirmation hearings--Rice labeled Korea an "outpost of tyranny"--which to Kim's ears sounded like calls for regime change.