LOS ANGELES — One mustn’t make too light of the presumed North Korean underground nuclear test, but the fact is that whenever instruments detect a lot of ground-shaking in North Korea, it could be because of almost anything.

The shaking could be due to the mass collapse of thousands of North Koreans from starvation, or even from the raucous rattling of malfunctioning rockets that come crashing to the ground shortly after takeoff. Some day perhaps, an odd and ominous sound may be triggered by the surprise thud of a thunderous Chinese coup against Pyongyang.

Don’t laugh. This most unlikable regime’s widely publicized boast of having conducted a small explosion cannot paper over the fact that North Korea is a pouting paper tiger. To keep things in perspective, the alleged nuclear test was minute in size — so small, in fact, that a conventional explosion could have had the same seismic impact.

Hoax or not, fear often spreads disproportionately to reality.

The Japanese people have the most justification for emotional over-reaction. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, completing a timely fence-mending mission to South Korea and China, said all the right things about the need to deter North Korea. In truth, Abe, a political patrician, has always expressed grave doubts about Kim Jong Il’s intentions and has consistently advised intimates to expect nothing but the worst from this North Korean government.

But the Japanese attitude should not become a self-fulfilling prophecy. North Korea is as bribable today as it was in 1994 when a Geneva conference, spearheaded by the United States, managed to freeze the regime’s nuclear program in return for a goodie-basket full of Western aid. That accord eventually broke down, with blame on both sides.

If that kind of accord cannot be revived, then certain developments become more probable. One is the unprecedented intensity in Japan to neutralize its pacifist constitution and nuclearize its arsenal. That millennial development would send shock waves throughout the region, and could well inspire a nuclear South Korea as well.

In relatively short measure, you would have gone from an East Asia with few nuclear powers to a region with quite a few. You would also get public pressure, in Japan as well as in the U.S., for the erection of a very costly (and very possibly inadequate, despite the cost) Asian regional missile-defense system.

If you add all these costs up, what you get is a colossal bundle of public expenditures and a boatload of missile-psychosis in Asia and America. How better, then, it would be to chart a sly return to the framework of 1994 — you know, the standard international deal: swords into plowshares for dough.

It remains difficult to imagine that ever-calculating North Korean leaders can hope for anything better than this. It is no more able to use its military force on its neighbors than the neighbors could use force on them. Both sides are caught in a stalemate of reality: South Korea’s options are limited by Seoul’s precarious proximity to North Korea’s deadly nonnuclear rocket installations; the U.S. options are similarly limited by that — not to mention by its heavy military investment and preoccupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is one last card to play. Washington could go ahead with some sort of economic sanctions, which would be ineffective and/or hurt the wrong people in North Korea. Nonetheless, such a move would assuage outraged American and Japanese public opinion. To continue the 1994 Framework Agreement reprise, Washington would have to agree to meet one-on-one, publicly, with Pyongyang and hammer out a re-visitation of Geneva.

The Chinese have long been urging precisely this, but Washington has declined, insisting on the multinational modality of the six-party talks. This stance is more stubborn than anything else: “Standing on principle about the modality for talks, that is, insisting on six-party rather than bilateral talks, strikes me as nuts, when the stakes are stopping a country from getting and perfecting nuclear weapons. It reminds me of arguing over the shape of the table even before agreeing to conduct peace talks for stopping the war in Vietnam more than 30 years ago.”

That perspective comes from Robert Gallucci, who is now dean of the Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. In 1994 he was the lead American official in negotiating the Geneva Framework Agreement. Something of this nature needs to be cobbled together anew.

Will the North Koreans, quite irrationally, decline — or, very dangerously, cheat on a denuclearization deal? If they do, then collective military action against the north may become the last remaining option. China, which has sponsored the six-party talks with little to show for that, might even decide to come onboard. Says a well-connected Asian diplomat who has been to North Korea but who does not want to be identified as speaking for his government: “Beijing would not hesitate to dump Kim Jong Il if doing so helps safeguard its own credibility.”

But we are not at the collective-action, military-option panic point yet — not by a long shot. This is not the time for hollow calls to arms but for rational, self-interested calculation and the most clearheaded thinking.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.