By James Corbett
In the coming days or weeks (perhaps even by the time you read this) North Korea will test another nuclear weapon. For those keeping track at home, this will be the isolated communist regime's third such nuclear test. It began in 2003, when the North Koreans announced their withdrawal from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. Three years later they conducted their first nuclear test. The second test came three years later in 2009. Now, just over three years after that (as if on cue), Pyongyang is vowing to set off another crude nuclear device.
The events that led up to this latest drama itself follows a pattern that has become all too familiar to those following East Asian politics. The North launched a satellite into orbit last December. Consensus opinion in the West holds that this was a cover for ballistic missile testing, but, as always, consensus opinion is probably wrong. To the surprise of many, a UN Security Council resolution condemning the launch (and slapping some token sanctions on a couple of North Koreans) passed when China actually voted in favor of it, rather than attempting to block it as it has with similar resolutions in the past. The DPRK reacted by vowing fiery death (or something to that effect) on the Americans and South Koreans, and then word of the nuclear test leaked.
North Korea has long been the madman in the attic of East Asian politics. Arguably the most insulated dictatorship in the world, the DPRK has taken the term “cult of personality” to a whole new level. It is the only government in the world who's acting head of state is a corpse; specifically, that of Kim Il-sung, current leader Kim Jong-un's grandfather who was crowned “Eternal President” upon his death in 1994. In his place, Kim Jong-il ruled as Supreme Leader until his own death in December 2011 (or whenever he actually died), racking up an impressive list of accomplishments along the way. Did you know, for example that he invented the hamburger, or scored the best round of golf in world history? Neither did I, but this is what the North Koreans are taught to believe. Now the mantle has fallen to his son, Kim Jong-un, who may or may not be a PR front for the Hermit Kingdom's real ruling military junta, may or may not have been making attempts to reconcile the nation before this latest round of warmongering, and may or may not believe his own grandiose propaganda about waging war on the US.
In fact, there are so many question marks surrounding the DPRK, its leadership, its intentions and its strategies that it has become the perfect cypher for the rest of the world to read into it whatever they want to read. The South Koreans, for their part, take the threat seriously enough (or at least pretend to) to request the purchase of four Global Hawk spy drones from the US. Given the hefty $1.2 billion price tag on the deal, this works out happily for Northrop Grumman. The Americans, meanwhile, are using the specter of mushroom clouds to push for a fresh round of defense spending of their own. The latest boogeyman to appear in the increasingly comic book imagination of the American Empire is the threat of a North Korean or Iranian nuclear weapon detonated sufficiently high up in the atmosphere to cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would wipe out electronics and communications across the US. In Japan, ultra-conservative Shinzo Abe can use the North Korean threats (and the satellites and rockets being lobbed over Japan) as (yet another) excuse to push for the remilitarization of the still-formally-demilitarized Japan, as support gradually grows (amongst the political class) for the revocation of the constitutional clause preventing Japan from maintaining an offensive military force. Meanwhile, the Chinese continue to enjoy holding the precarious North Korean economy by the purse strings, and now, according to recent US senatorial reports, perceives the DPRK as little more than a Chinese tributary.
And in this vast calculus, the lives of millions of North Koreans hang in the balance, pawns in a grand game of nuclear chess that they have no part in and no control over. What little information leaks out about the condition of the average North Korean peasantry is grim, and always has been. But little (if any) attention is paid to the North Koreans themselves in the grand “six party talks” that has wasted 10 years accomplishing precisely nothing in this game of nuclear carrot-and-stick.
Scratch that: the game has accomplished less than nothing. In the 10 years of negotiations North Korea has gone from a country that has expressed theoretical interest in developing nuclear weapons, to a country that has accomplished that, to a country that is continuing to develop the rocketry technology that would be required to deliver a nuclear warhead (should they ever figure out how to miniaturize their nukes sufficiently). If you're beginning to think this sounds like a rigged game you're beginning to get the picture. The game goes back at least to 1994, when the US agreed to help supply two lightwater nuclear reactors to North Korea on the good faith that the insane murderous dictatorial regime would never attempt to use it for anything but supplying its citizens with electricity. The company that got the contract to fulfill this order was ABB, a Swiss-based multinational engineering conglomerate that just happened to have Donald Rumsfeld (yes, that Donald Rumsfeld) on its board at the time. The best the US DoD could come up with by way of excuse for the former Defense Secretary's role in supplying (however indirectly) America's sworn enemy with the technological basis for developing nuclear weapons is that the $200 million contract never came before the board during Rumsfeld's tenure.
Part of the deal to supply these ABB reactors involved North Korea abandoning use of its Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, a 5MWe experimental reactor that began operation in 1980. When the agreement fell through and the ABB contract was not fulfilled, the North Koreans simply went back to Yongbyon and began collecting the plutonium for their nuclear weapons. Estimates are that they produced enough plutonium for six nuclear weapons before suspending operations in 2007.
Once you've digested the news that North Korea owes a debt of gratitude to the west in fostering, protecting and aiding its nuclear capabilities, there's yet another load of bull to swallow. In 2011 A.Q. Khan claimed that the North Korean nuclear know-how came from Pakistan via bribes that he helped convey to senior Pakistani military officials. Although this particular claim has never been confirmed, it should be kept in mind that the A.Q. Khan network itself was known about, penetrated, and protected by American intelligence virtually from its inception in 1974, when Khan was immediately placed under surveillance by Dutch intelligence (BVD). When the BVD informed the CIA that they were going to arrest Khan, the CIA ordered them to let him continue. In the 1980s, when CIA analyst Richard Barlow tried to organize a sting against a Pakistani businessman purchasing nuclear technologies for the network from an American company, the Pakistanis were tipped off by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of Near East Affairs Robert Peck and they never showed up. The network continued operations unimpeded and not only proliferated nuclear weapons technology and equipment to Pakistan, but (allegedly) to North Korea, Iran, and Libya as well.
The fact is that nuclear weapons have always been just another pawn in the game of geopolitics. Despite the show that's put on about “nuclear disarmament” and the political platitudes about the danger of proliferation, the truth is that the threat of new nuclear boogeyman helps those who benefit—both financially and politically—from their creation. So it goes with North Korea. A madman has a nuclear arsenal and openly threatens to use them against the US and its allies, and just about everyone in the region stands to benefit from this threat in some way. No one stands to benefit from the actual use of these weapons, of course, especially North Korea where the actual use of one of these weapons would be suicidal. But as long as the threat is maintained and the tensions are raised by this game of political brinksmanship every three years or so, the situation can be strung along indefinitely drawing countries back to the negotiating table to continue propping up the North Korean government and its presumed legitimacy.
Contrast the situation in North Korea to that of Iran and the political nature of this game becomes even more apparent. North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT well ahead of time. It has openly tested nuclear weapons. It has tested technologies for delivering such weapons. And it has openly threatened to use them. Iran, meanwhile, is an NPT signatory. It continues to allow IAEA inspections. Not even the American intelligence establishment (the same establishment that trumped up the WMD claims against Iraq) has credible evidence that Iran is doing anything toward developing nuclear weapons. And yet 99% of the coverage of the “nuclear proliferation” threat concentrates on Iran and the supposed existential threat that Iran would pose to Israel, a nation with the sixth largest (completely undeclared and officially denied) nuclear arsenal in the world that has never signed the NPT or allowed inspections. Political hand-wringing about “nuclear proliferation” is not actually a concern about nuclear weapons, it is merely a club that is being wielded to beat other nations into submission.
Watching all of these events unfold from Japan, the only country to be targeted with nuclear warfare, is especially disheartening. A short bullet train ride from where I live is the Hiroshima Peace Park, where the Peace Museum commemorates the moment of the explosion in 1945 that took 100,000 lives and changed the face of world history. The Museum is all the more effective because it is not about politics; no attempt is made to cover up Japanese war crimes or atrocities. Instead, the argument is simple: nuclear weapons must never be used in wartime again, by any nation, for any reason. As you leave the museum you are confronted by a wall containing hundreds of letters. Every time a nuclear weapons test is conducted, the current mayor of Hiroshima writes a letter of protest to that nation's embassy. The sheer number of such letters is a sobering reminder of just how embedded in international relations nuclear weapons have become, and the wall itself stands as a testament to human perseverance or sheer futility. Perhaps both.
So here we stand, a world still being held nuclear hostage by the psychopathic leaders of corrupt nations that are only to use their own populations as pawns in a game for their own personal power and enrichment. Meanwhile, the old adage that one never goes bankrupt investing in defense contractors seems as true today as it ever has. It might be worth noting, however, that there is a vast gulf between material bankruptcy and ethical bankruptcy. The nuclear hypocrites in governments the world over reached that point generations ago.