An attention-seeking missile
North Korea’s rocket launch was not a Team America-style evil plot, but the desperate act of an isolated state.
It almost looks scripted.
On Friday 3 April, US president Barack Obama announces that he intends to outline his plans for a world free of nuclear weapons. This, he tells his Strasbourg audience, will take place on Sunday during his scheduled visit to the Czech Republic. Saturday passes. Then, at 4.30am the following morning, as if right on cue, a North Korean long-range rocket capable of carrying a nuclear warhead splutters into the atmosphere over Japan.
By all accounts it wasn’t the most successful rocket test ever. If South Korean and American reports are to be believed, the rocket failed to make orbit and plummeted into the Pacific Ocean. But that, like North Korea’s protestations that it was simply launching a satellite, is irrelevant here. What matters is that in terms of Obama’s definition of America’s mission ‘to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons’, North Korea’s attention-seeking missile proved a rather timely ‘provocation’. Here was a chance to prove America’s Obama-led ‘moral leadership’.
There are, of course, some glaring ironies eating away at America’s moral leadership on the issue of nuclear warheads. Firstly, there’s the small matter of the 4,075 nukes America itself possesses. Of the 10,000 or so nuclear weapons in existence, Russia has 5,192, France 300, the UK 192, China 196, and Israel, Pakistan and India share a further 290; North Korea has a grand total of two. And secondly, out of all the nuclear-armed nations, only America has actually had dubious cause to use one. Like a thief proclaiming his commitment to the principle of private property, Obama’s claim last week that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 furnishes America with a unique ‘moral responsibility’ to rid the world of nuclear weapons does not seem especially convincing.
Fortunately for Obama, the hypocrisy of nuke-laden America telling other states not to build or test nuclear weapons was legislated for in 1968, in the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This gives the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – America, Russia, China, France and Britain – the right to have nuclear weapons, but withholds it from every other country. Although the NPT’s second pillar insists on progressive disarmament, its first and principal pillar asserts that states without nuclear weapons should not build any and states with nuclear weapons should ensure that they don’t – by withholding information and uranium and so on. Possession, it seems, is 10 tenths of international law.
The implication of the NPT is clear. Some countries are to be trusted with nuclear weapons, Hiroshima and Nagasaki aside, while others clearly are not. Under the NPT, the world is divided up on moral grounds.
The NPT, instituted in the late 1960s, effectively put a new, seemingly acceptable gloss on the global divide between the West and the rest. Prior to the 1960s, in the colonial era of the early twentieth century, a different vision of Western might held sway: on one side lay the civilised colonialists of the West, and on the other the uncivilised swathes of the colonised nations. But with anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia casting off their imperial fetters, and many in the West itself questioning the rectitude of Empire, such a divide was no longer seen as legitimate in the periods of upheaval in the 1950s and 60s. It is in the context of a withered colonialism, a faithless imperialism, that the NPT had its meaning. With the old racial divide no longer tenable, the NPT reframed the global order in terms of responsible states and fragile, unstable states, creating a divide between the militarily responsible and the militarily unpredictable; it added a new ‘peaceful’ gloss to Western notions of superiority.
The moral grandstanding on the issue of nuclear disarmament represented a volte face on the part of Western leaders. Prior to the 1960s and the NPT, military strength, rather than aspirations of military disarmament, had long been considered a national virtue. And in the 1940s and 50s, possessing nuclear weapons was the ultimate accolade on an international stage still defined by might and power. Hence in 1959, British prime minister Harold Macmillan claimed that a nuclear arsenal ‘gives us a better position in the world, it gives us a better position with respect to the United States. It puts us where we ought to be, in the position of a Great Power.’
Since then, however, leaders’ outlooks have shifted. To show one’s commitment to nuclear disarmament rather than to armament, as the NPT indicates, became the new source of moral authority in global affairs. The reasons are not hard to fathom. The experience of anti-colonial uprisings, Vietnam and peace protests in the West in particular made displays of naked Western power increasingly difficult to justify as the cornerstone of global authority. Instead, Western powers have tended to assert their authority in the velvet glove of morality; in this sense, the NPT can be seen as a precursor to the era of ‘humanitarian militarism’ of the 1990s and today, where Western governments project their power in non-militaristic, disinterested, ‘peaceful’ language - backed up by military force, of course.
Obama’s new non-proliferation proposal draws upon the moralising trajectory embodied in the NPT. And it is, if anything, even more insidious, more controllingly divisive, than anything dreamt up during the nuke-armed period of the Cold War. For on top of prohibiting reprobate nations from building their own nuclear weapons, Obama is now proposing an ‘international fuel bank’ to monitor civil nuclear programmes, too. This UN-regulated bank would, by supplying low-enriched uranium for the purposes of electricity generation, prevent countries from developing their own fuel-enrichment programmes. Except, of course, those nations, like the US, trustworthy enough to have them already.
To dictate to sovereign nations how much uranium they can use and what they can use it for, to threaten them with isolation and punishment for non-compliance with Obama’s proposals, brings the iron fist of NPT morality to the fore. Unrelentingly punitive, the division of the world into the trustworthy and the untrustworthy, the right-thinking and the palpably wrong, cements the new global hierarchy based on an anti-nuclear outlook. For those nations beyond the Western pale, unable to decide upon even their own energy policy, let alone military strategy, peaceful Western imperialism has stringent consequences.
What of North Korea itself? Why did it launch this rocket? Those who believe that Kim Jong-il is an evil genius, a super villain straight from a James Bond movie (or from the satirical puppet film Team America: World Police), Obama’s non-proliferation plans probably seem eminently sensible. However, it seems rather more plausible that North Korea’s rocket launch, far from being a stab at global domination, is simply a desperate attempt to overcome its international isolation.
Besieged and bedraggled since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, dismissed with a threatening sneer by the West, especially during George W Bush’s tenure, North Korea has long found isolation to be the mother of nuclear invention. Over the past 10 years or so, North Korea has consistently used its now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t nuclear programme as an underhand means of conducting a relationship with the West. In 2003, for instance, North Korea withdrew from the NPT on the basis that the US had failed to make good on aid and non-aggression promises. Then in 2006, when the UN passed resolution 1718 to forbid nuclear testing, in an attempt to ingratiate itself with Western powers, North Korea destroyed its Yongbyon reactor and cooling tower. Then, in September 2008, it said it would start rebuilding Yongbyon if the US renewed its hostile approach to all things North Korean.
The rocket launch on Sunday morning was simply part of this dance with the West, this attempt to enter into relations with Western governments as an equal, or at least serious, partner. This was an attention-seeking missile, launched by a state that seems to recognise there is no better way to be taken seriously than by challenging the global diktat of non-proliferation and non-testing.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.