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John Chuckman: North Korea's Bomb

North Korea's Bomb

By John Chuckman
October 12, 2006

You might think from all the political noise that something extraordinary happened when North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion. But let's put the test, apparently a small-yield, inefficient device, into some perspective.

The United States has conducted 1,127 nuclear and thermonuclear tests, including 217 in the atmosphere. The Soviet Union/ Russia conducted 969 tests, including 219 in the atmosphere. France, 210, including 50 in the atmosphere. The United Kingdom, 45, with 21 in the atmosphere. China, 45, with 23 in the atmosphere. India and Pakistan, 13, all underground. South Africa (and/or Israel) one atmospheric test in 1979.

From a purely statistical point of view, North Korea's test does seem a rather small event. You must add the fact that my title, North Korea's Bomb, is aimed at being pithy and is thereby unavoidably inaccurate. Having a nuclear device is not the same thing as having a bomb or warhead, much less a compact and efficient bomb or warhead. North Korea still has a long way to go.

But North Korea's test is magnified in its effect by several circumstances. First, war in the Korean peninsula has never formally ended, and American troops might well be vulnerable to even a school bus with a nuclear device. Just that thought is probably horrifying to many Americans who are not used to being challenged abroad, but I'm sure North Korea has already been warned that that would constitute national suicide.

Two, the test comes when Bush has been exploring military means to end Iran's work with nuclear upgrading technology. There is no proof that Iran intends to create nuclear weapons, but, being realistic, I think we have to say it's likely. Iran faces nuclear-armed countries, hostile to its interests, in several directions. Security of its people is an important obligation of any state.

I doubt Bush intends invading Iran - invasion's extreme advocates, neo-con storm troopers like David Frum and Richard Perle having proved totally wrong about Iraq - but that doesn't exclude some form of air attack. Iran has deeply buried its production sites, so the usual American bombers and cruise missiles will be ineffective. There has been talk of using tactical nuclear warheads, but I think there would be overwhelming world revulsion to this. The Pentagon may be considering non-nuclear ICBMs, there having been talk of arming a portion of the American fleet with non-nuclear warheads to exploit the accuracy and momentum of their thousands-of-miles-an-hour strikes for deep penetration. But Russia's missile forces are on hair-trigger alert against the launch of any American ICBM, and the time for confirming error with shorter-range sea-launched missiles is almost nonexistent.

Bombardment of Iran may now be more questionable, something we may regard as a good outcome of the North Korean test. How do you justify an attack to prevent the development of nuclear weapons in one country when you have done nothing of the kind in another that actually has them? This is even more true because Iran, while not Arabic, is Islamic, and public relations for America in the Islamic world already are terrible.

Third, what many analysts fear most from North Korea is its selling weapons or technology to terrorists. North Korea sells a good deal of its limited military technology to others, although this does not make the country in any way special, the world's largest arms trafficker by far being the United States. Many would argue that American weapons have supported terror, those used in Beirut, for example, ghastly flesh-mangling cluster bombs dropped on civilians. The answer to this fear about North Korea brings us to the simple human matter of talking. The U.S. must give up its arrogant, long-held attitude against talking and dealing with North Korea, for here it is certainly working against its own vital interests.

It is an interesting sidelight on North Korea's test that at least portions of its technology came from A. Q. Kahn's under-the-table operations in Pakistan, America's great ally in its pointless war on terror. Perhaps Kim Jong Il should volunteer troops for Iraq. This would undoubtedly change America's view of him dramatically. Cooperation won a lot of benefits for the dictatorship in Pakistan regarded by America as a rogue nuclear state just a few years ago.

All completely rational people wish that nuclear weapons did not exist, but wishing is a fool's game.

Efforts for general nuclear disarmament are almost certainly doomed to failure at this stage of human history. Why would any of the nuclear powers give up these weapons? They magnify the influence and prestige of the nations that have them. And why should other nations, facing both the immense power of the United States and its often-bullying tactics, give up obtaining them? Moreover, technology in any field improves and comes down in cost over time, and it will undoubtedly prove so with making nuclear weapons.

The entire Western world has conspired to remain silent on Israel's nuclear arms, even when Israel assisted apartheid South Africa to build a nuclear weapon. If nuclear weapons are foolish and useless, why does little Israel possess them? Why did South Africa want them? Why did the Soviet Union, despite a great depression and horrible impoverishment after the collapse of communism, keep its costly nuclear arsenal?

If Western nations can understand the dark fear that drives Israel, why can they not understand the same thing for North Korea? The United States has refused for years to talk and has threatened and punished North Korea in countless ways. When the U.S., under Clinton, did agree to peaceful incentives for North Korea to abandon its nuclear work, it later failed utterly to keep its word.

Bush has treated the North Koreans with the same dismissive contempt and threatening attitude he has so many others. How on earth was this approach ever to achieve anything other than what it now has produced?

We keep hearing that North Korea is irrational and unstable, but I think these descriptions are inaccurate. A regime that has lasted for more than half a century can be called many things, but not unstable. Soviet-style regimes were very stable. It was when such governments attempted reforms and loosened their absolute hold on people's lives that they toppled, but there seems little likelihood of a Gorbachev assuming power in North Korea.

North Korea has done some bizarre things over the last fifty years, but I do not think a careful speaker would describe the nation as irrational. North Korea has been isolated and ignored by the United States. It is American policy that frequently has been irrational, Bush's mob having been especially thick in their behavior towards the country.

I may be exaggerating when I write of bizarre North Korean acts, for since World War II, what nation has done more bizarre, damaging things than the United States? Over forty years of costly hostility and terror against Cuba? The insane, pointless war in Vietnam? The insane, pointless invasion of Iraq?

Harsh sanctions against North Korea, already advocated by the emotionally-numb Bush, are a foolish response. North Korea's rulers would not suffer any more than did Saddam Hussein under American-imposed sanctions against Iraq after Desert Storm. Only ordinary people would be driven to misery and starvation, just as they were in Iraq where tens of thousands of innocents died.

How much easier and more productive just to talk.


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