The papers’ shift their attention across the Yellow Sea today, from Pyongyang to Beijing, as the world waited to see how Chinese President Hu Jintao would respond to his neighbor and sort-of ally Kim Jong-il’s purported test of a nuclear weapon. The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times all lead with the continuing diplomatic maneuvers, and the story also tops the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsbox. USA Today, in a “cover story,” questions whether the bomb North Korea exploded was really a nuke (almost certainly) and whether the test was a success (almost certainly not), while the paper’s lead story is on a federal study of electoral fraud. (The investigation found, rather anticlimactically, that there isn’t much.)
The United States proposed a tough set of sanctions against North Korea to the U.N. Security Council Monday, and by yesterday its proposal had the tentative backing of Britain and France, leaving the usual holdouts, China and Russia. All agree China is the crucial player. Yesterday, its U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, said “some punitive actions” were a foregone conclusion but called for a “prudent” response. He indicated that China would favor sanctions that were “specifically targeted toward the nuclear- and missile-related areas,” but not the wider-ranging set of penalties the U.S. wants. The most crucial issue is whether the sanctions will be backed up by an authorization for force.
The NYT’s lead highlights Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s declaration, in a series of television interviews yesterday, that the U.S. has ruled out a military response to the test, adding that “the diplomatic path is open” to North Korea. She said that the North Koreans now face sanctions “unlike anything that they have faced before.”
The LAT’s lead, headlined “U.S. Fears Export of Technology,” delves into the U.S.’s big-picture strategy, and it’s the most informative story of the day by far—certainly the most sobering. Now that North Korea has crossed the nuclear threshold, U.S. officials are shifting their focus to “closing pathways to proliferation of weapons technology.” David Kay, the former U.N. weapons inspector, tells the paper, “There is virtually nothing on the face of the Earth that the North Koreans have gotten their hands on that they haven’t been willing to sell.” The most likely scenario doesn’t involve North Korea selling a completed bomb but rather shipping off raw fissile material to countries like Iran or Syria, with which it’s done arms deals in the past. And here’s the really scary part: North Korea has stopped using ships, which the United States can intercept, in favor of shipping its arms by air or land through China and Russia—which means the U.S. needs a lot more than those countries’ Security Council votes if it wants to isolate Kim Jong-il.
A companion LAT story, an excellent piece by former Seoul bureau chief Barbara Demick, says that for all Kim’s very real goofiness—the story discloses that an ABC News crew that recently visited the hermit state was required to bring the Dear Leader a complete set of Desperate Housewives episodes—he is actually a clever and ruthless political survivor. Last year *, NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof made many of the same points in a New York Review of Books article.
Only USAT fronts the continuing international puzzlement over the nature of North Korea’s bomb, which yielded a far smaller explosion than nukes usually produce. Everyone else covers the story inside. There is even some speculation that an explosion of the size measured could have been created by a massive quantity of conventional explosives, though everyone seems to agree that it’s more likely that the bomb just didn’t quite ignite the way it was supposed to, which experts said was not surprising, considering that it was North Korea’s first time. Kim Jong-il released a statement saying, “I swear, this never happens to me,” before rolling over and falling asleep.
Actually, the AP has late-breaking word that North Korea’s Foreign Ministry threatened further tests if the U.S. keeps up its “hostile attitude.”
The NYT fronts a piece—done in the WSJ yesterday—on the political recriminations. Sen. John McCain, in what seemed like a warm-up for 2008, threw a jab at the Clintons, while the Republican National Committee distributed a photograph of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright toasting Kim during a 2000 visit to Pyongyang.
On its front page, the WP follows an investigation the NYT published yesterday, which TP probably short-shrifted. The story—one of those Frontline tag-team efforts—had to do with the FBI’s complete failure to realign itself to fight the terrorism and detailed some troublesome surveillance tactics the bureau is allegedly engaging in. The WP story makes much the same point, disclosing that five years after the World Trade Center attacks, only 33 agents out of more than 12,000 possess even a limited proficiency in Arabic. The NYT piece pointed out that no more than a dozen were Muslims.
Everyone stuffs news of a new study from Johns Hopkins University epidemiologists that estimates that more than 650,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war, around 600,000 of them as a direct result of violence. All of the papers register skepticism about the study, which was based on door-to-door interviews with randomly selected families. “The figure breaks down to about 15,000 violent deaths a month,” the NYT says, many times more than the official statistics, or even the estimates of anti-war groups.
The LAT, NYT, WSJand WP all file inside stories on the funeral of assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The NYT’s piece, which brims with moral outrage and comes thisclose to calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a murderer, is a real tour de force—read it.
In election news: The WP files from Ohio, where “values” issues seem to be losing ground to economic concerns. And the LAT has an interesting—and fairly contradictory—dispatch from Missouri, where the Democratic challenger in a tight Senate race is having trouble picking up conservative rural votes. “I worry more about abortion and gay marriage and all that crazy stuff,” said one voter.
The WSJ, continuing its spadework on the congressional “earmark” issue, has an entertaining investigative feature on Charles Taylor—no, not that Charles Taylor—a multimillionaire North Carolina congressman who has a habit of championing highway projects that run near his extensive landholdings.
Dept. of Dead Horses … Inside, the WP continues to dig into the Mark Foley page scandal, which is becoming more meta by the day. The story discusses how the Post obtained some of the vulgar instant-message conversations between Foley and a male page last week. They came from a pair of former pages, a Republican and a Democrat, who say they had no political motivation—they were just outraged by Foley’s behavior. The story does not disclose, however, the answer to what seems like the most interesting question to TP: Did the page who exchanged dirty IMs with Foley ask his “friends” to pass along the messages that have now, it seems likely, ruined his life? Or is this just another parable of the dangers of the “forward” button?