THESE DAYS when North Korea conducts a nuclear or missile test, the preferred metaphor in Washington is to compare Kim Jong Il to a spoiled child. President George W. Bush used to say the North's "Dear Leader" was like a baby throwing food on the floor in the hope that the adults would pick it up. When asked about North Korea during a recent trip to the region, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that as a mother she was already familiar with small children acting out to gain attention. Meanwhile, foreign-policy experts have fought over diplomatic tactics for a decade: Should we engage Pyongyang bilaterally? Multilaterally? Not at all? Journalism's contribution has been a series of depressingly accurate but not terribly prescriptive accounts of how often the U.S. and Asian governments have been reduced to internal squabbling over North Korea policy.
Lost among all the ridiculing of Kim Jong Il and the fights over the shape of the negotiating table is one unmistakable fact: North Korea has deliberately made itself more dangerous over the past fifteen years. It has increased its missile arsenal, the capabilities of its weapons, and its chemical, biological and nuclear programs. And now the rapid physical demise of Kim Jong Il adds a new element of uncertainty.