Up in the sky -- it's a bird, it's a bomb, it's a forest fire, it's... what is it?
What causes a two-and-a-half-mile-wide mushroom cloud, generates an explosion that can be felt miles away, and registers higher on the Richter scale than a minor earthquake? Well, depending on whom you ask, the answer could be a forest fire, a demolitions project, a meteorological phenomenon, or a host of other explanations. The one thing that government officials around the world do agree on regarding the mysterious blast a few miles south of North Korea's Chinese border on September 9 is that it was not nuclear.
The explosion, which occurred on the 56th anniversary of North Korea's founding, immediately threw up flags for intelligence agencies all over the world. Evidence had turned up in the weeks prior to the incident that North Korea was close to testing their first nuclear device; for several years the country had been flaunting its fledgling nuclear capability after pulling out of the international non-proliferation treaty.
While a nuclear test was the first thing on everyone's mind after the explosion, U.S. officials were quick to quell speculation. They pointed out that South Korean monitoring groups had not detected any radiation after the explosion, and that any number of factors could have caused the cloud ? even a large forest fire. Other governments were not quite so quick to proffer explanations, but it was not until September 13 that the North Korean government said anything. They claimed the blast was part of a demolition project in preparation for a new hydroelectric plant; foreign officials toured the site on Tuesday.
Many people still don't believe the official stories. It seems increasingly clear that it was not a nuclear explosion, but there are still other options ? the most popular being that it was actually a failed test of North Korea's Nodong medium-range ballistic missile. Whatever it was, it could not have come at a less opportune time. China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States are all in joint negotiations with Pyongyang to stymie the country's nuclear research, and while these negotiations have not yet been very successful, they are a key part of the puzzle if North Korea ever wants to be accepted as a legitimate international body in the near future. The North wants foreign aid but it does not seem to want to give up its military (especially nuclear) status.
If the Pyongyang government is as much of a loose cannon as it appears to be, it could be bad news for President Bush's proposed troop realignment plans. In August, Bush announced that one of his goals for his next term would be a reorganization of American forces abroad; he called the current distribution of forces a relic of the Cold War, poised to respond to conflicts that no longer exist. The plan calls for at least a third of the troops currently stationed in South Korea to be moved into countries newly allied with the United States, especially Romania, Poland, and Uzbekistan, as well as a decreased presence in Japan.
It is admittedly not likely that North Korea will lash out at its wealthier sibling to the south; there are too many internal struggles that Kim Jong Il has to resolve merely to keep his country afloat. If North Korea is indeed having problems controlling its nuclear arsenal, though, it could only be a matter of time before something happens to tip the balance. None of this even takes into account North Korea's known past of peddling drugs and weapons to the highest bidder. The Bush administration certainly isn't going to wait until a van packed with North Korean nukes parks outside the Capitol building; if North Korea continues developing its weapons with the total disregard for international treaties that it has demonstrated in the past decade, a preemptive strike against the impoverished peninsula is not too hard to imagine. And then people might be asking how to say ?world war? in Korean.