North Korea's nuclear fart

IssueNovember 2006
Comment by Rebecca Johnson

It might have been described in North Korea as a “happy” test, but North Korea's nuclear explosion on 9 October was deeply sad.

Sad for the people of North Korea who are oppressed while their preening “dear leader” Kim Jong Il beggars the economy and pours scarce resources into building plutonium weapons. Sad for the nuclear non-proliferation regime, widening its credibility gap and yet again showing how the “promise” of nuclear power can be diverted into nuclear weapons by unscrupulous leaders. A very sad reflection of US policy failures, mistakes and provocations, most notably by the Bush administration. And sad and frightening for many people, but especially those who live in North-East Asia. Though the despotic regimes of the Kim father and son dynasty have for decades recognised that even the threat of getting a nuclear weapon was enough to set the United States jumping, two recent events turned an ambition (for attention) into a reality (for deterrence): George W Bush's infamous “axis of evil” speech; and the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Was it a real nuclear test?

Some experts got excited for a while speculating that it was not a real nuclear test, but the analyses seem now to confirm that it was a small nuclear explosion using plutonium. It may have been smaller than intended, half way to a failure -- what in nuke-speak is called a “fizzle”, though still pretty lethal if it gets aimed at you.

Does it matter? Yes: it shows that North Korea can put it all together, if not necessarily very efficiently; Kim has shown himself sensitive to Western ridicule of his nuclear claims in the past, so if this test had not been believed, his ego would insist on trying again. Of course, North Korea may still test again, because one explosion does not a reliable, deliverable weapon make. Let's hope the demonstration was enough, however.

What's the message?

The North Korean test was politically beamed straight at the United States: Don't mess with us. A lot of political fall-out is also landing on Japan, South Korea and China. China's appeals to Kim Jong Il to refrain from testing were ignored, and Beijing has publicly lost face at a time when China is wanting to be treated as a major player in world power politics.

Having been first humiliated by its treatment at the hands of the Bush administration, South Korea is deeply anxious about the North's apparent escalation. It is divided into two camps, each of which say “I told you so”. One side -- fortunately the minority -- claims that South Korea should have taken the North's threat more seriously and developed its own nuclear capability when it had the chance; the other camp blames the crassness of recent US policy, which undermined South Korea's “sunshine” policy of engagement with the people of the North and then alternated between bellowing empty threats and shaking in its shoes.

Impact beyond

Japan, too, is deeply conflicted. Predictably, the test has resulted in a reinforcing of support for the US government's nuclear umbrella and missile defence (capitalised on by Condoleezza Rice in her recent visit). There has also been more open questioning of the prohibition against acquiring its own nuclear weapons enshrined in Japan's constitution.

Although it's an open secret that Japan's sophisticated civilian nuclear programme could provide the government with all the materials and technology to make a bomb, it used to be political suicide for a politician or official to be seen to question the non-nuclear constitution. Not any more, as the post-test remarks of the Japanese Foreign Minister testify.

I am writing this in Nagasaki, where I am participating in the Third Global Citizens' Assembly for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. The nuclear test has dealt a severe blow to the Japanese peace movement. They are profoundly worried -- not so much by the prospect of being attacked with a North Korean missile, which they largely discount, recognising that the purpose of the test was political -- but by how this plays into the hands of right-wingers who want to strengthen the military alliance with the United States and open the door to a Japanese bomb in the future.

A note for despots

Finally, a key, and very undesirable message, is that nuclear deterrence works. No... not Trident... Nuclear deterrence only works against one country these days, the United States.

Note to the UK government: cold war deterrence is out; nuclear weapons don't carry positive status or great power attributes, but they are attractive if you're a nasty, vain, oppressive little despot who lies to his people and likes selling arms to other weak or oppressive regimes...