A North Korean Bomb? Not the end of the world

What this nuclear crisis reveals is not the 'power' of Kim Jong-il, but the impotence of Western foreign policy.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

It was, the headlines boomed, ‘The explosion that shook the world’. More like ‘the press statement that shook the world’, since the details of what really happened beneath the ground are still clouded in dust.

North Korea’s reported nuclear test hardly ranks as a ‘show of strength’ from this impoverished and desperate state where, as one satirical website commented after reports that the explosion had been smaller than expected, ‘even the nukes are starving’. It does, however, provide further evidence of the impotence of US and Western foreign policy.

Kim Jong-il’s regime may have built and exploded a nuclear bomb. But the rogue state of North Korea was largely created in Washington.

Thrashing about for some sense of purpose in American foreign policy, President George Bush and his advisers invented the ‘axis of evil’ almost overnight, basically as a snappy catchphrase for his 2002 State of the Union address. North Korea was given official pariah status, along with Iraq and Iran. The Bush administration abandoned its predecessor’s tentative steps to normalise relations with North Korea, and instead set up Kim Jong-il as another little Hitler against whom to show its moral resolution.

When you turn a small country into a rogue state and a scourge, continually accuse it of harbouring weapons of mass destruction and repeatedly issue threats and insults, eventually it is likely to play the part. North Korea has consistently sought talks with America, only to be snubbed. Its nuclear test was a dramatic gesture of defiance, but it was only following the script written by America’s hawks.

Many reacted with horror to news of the North Korean test. After all, we have repeatedly been told in recent years that Weapons of Mass Destruction pose a mortal threat to world peace. The fiasco of Iraq’s non-existent nuclear or chemical weapons has done little to diminish the fear of the spectre of WMDs.

However, those who would focus our fears on the possible spread of a few WMDs rarely seem to raise concerns about the vast arsenals that actually exist. After all, nuclear weapons are already stockpiled by the five nuclear powers on the United Nations Security council – the USA, Russia, China, France and the UK. These states are legally entitled to have them under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So why should any nation in the developing world feel it is morally wrong for them to have what the big boys insist upon as a right? Any such awkward questions are drowned out by the cacophony of condemnations aimed at North Korea.

Some suggest that North Korea cannot be allowed to develop nukes because Kim Jong-il is a psychopath. There is a long and ignoble tradition in the West of branding upstart third world dictators as madmen (as opposed to obedient third world dictators, who have been treated as statesmen). Nobody needs to celebrate the prospect of Kim possibly getting his finger on some sort of nuclear button. But nor is any need to head for the shelters just yet.

Even if North Korea has developed the Bomb, it will not be the end of the world. What threat does the Pyongyang regime pose to peace? This is not the Cold War, when North Korea could rely on the Soviet Union to back its war with the South. More recent experience suggests that, like those underground tests, the isolated regime makes more noise than impact. The North Korean government may well try to test more devices, in a bid to win recognition abroad and shore up support at home. But the tremors are unlikely to ‘shake the world’.

If these stunts do not demonstrate the power of Kim Jong-il, however, the crisis does point up once more the imperial impotence of America and its Western allies. For six years, the Bush administration has sought to use its overbearing strength to muscle North Korea away from developing a nuclear programme. It failed. Following on from the failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the impasses over Iran and the Middle East, this provides further evidence that foreign policy is now so out of control that nothing seems to go to plan. Those who believe that the Bush administration is pursuing a master plan to colonise the globe might note its apparent inability to get the better of the tinpot tyrant in Pyongyang.

President Bush’s initial response to reports of the test, warning North Korea not to try giving its new technology to others, sounded like an implicit acceptance that he cannot stop them developing it. The neo-cons are naturally banging the drum for air-strikes and all that. But Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s Secretary of State, has since made clear to the Koreans that ‘there is no intention to invade or attack them’. Even if the administration seriously wanted to launch such attacks, it is no position to throw its weight around in Asia. China, the emerging regional superpower, has agreed to the imposition of some sanctions on North Korea, but is unlikely to countenance anything more drastic in its backyard. The neo-cons might be shouting now about how the nuclear test proves they were right to take a hard line. But as things unravel further, Pyongyang might yet find the diplomatic door re-opens.

The international powers also tried to seize upon North Korea’s nuclear test as a rare opportunity for a show of solidarity: ‘World unites to condemn’ etc. But this, too, only pointed up another problem. The real ‘nuclear crisis’ concerns Iran – another, far more powerful, state that the Bush regime needlessly alienated by lumping it into the ‘axis of evil’ (see Iran: an irrational war of words, by Brendan O’Neill). America, Britain and the rest feel far more comfortable uniting against such an easy target as North Korea than trying to handle such a diplomatic hot potato as Iran. In this sense, the campaign against Pyongyang’s nukes is just a proxy war of words.

It seems that, in exploding that test underground, Kim Jong-il is far from the only one staging political stunts to cover up some far deeper problems.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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