On the third weekend in March, while America was transfixed by the most exciting NCAA basketball tournament in years, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the Far East, in the midst of a series of meetings with her opposite numbers in six Asian countries. Arriving in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, she boarded a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter and flew to Command Post Tango, the underground bunker that would be the nerve center for the U.S. military in the event of a war against North Korea. While not quite on the order of Ariel Sharon's parading around the Temple Mount in Israel, Rice's move was undeniably provocative. No high-ranking American official had ever visited the bunker before—and the choice of a military site as the secretary of state's first stop seemed to represent a gentle rattling of the sword. What's more, Rice spoke against a backdrop of computers and television screens monitoring the 20,000 South Korean and American soldiers who were at that very moment engaging in one of their regular war-game exercises—practicing, in effect, to fight a war with North Korea no sane person hopes ever to see.
The North Koreans responded by rattling their sword right back. First they announced they were boosting their nuclear arsenal, as a “deterrent” against U.S. attack. And then, apparently, they began to act: a few weeks after Rice's visit, U.S. spy satellites detected a reduction in activity at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Possibly this meant that the reactor had run into mechanical trouble; more probably, it meant that the North Koreans had shut down the plant to withdraw spent fuel rods in order to reprocess them into fissile material for nuclear weapons. What was clear was that the situation represented a grave international crisis.