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NK nukes: We're all (not) going to die

The wrong monster

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But that potentially happy arrangement shifted yet again when North Korea insisted, against evidence to the contrary, that it had successfully detonated a nuclear weapon, and the world had better start paying attention to it, or we'll all soon regret it.

Unfortunately for the Bush/Blair team, Kim Jong-il is the wrong monster very much in the wrong place. Over 140,000 US troops in Iraq still can't secure the little stretch of road between Baghdad Airport and the Green Zone. A military crisis in east Asia, everyone knows, is far beyond any US capacity to address.

Interestingly, it was the White House that first expressed doubts about the Korean nuclear "success." The Bushy motives may be typically reprehensible - largely a matter of insisting that they're already engaged with the right monsters - but the facts nevertheless support a skeptical approach.

The test blast is estimated at a very mild one kiloton or less, which suggests two possible explanations. First, the explosion was faked with conventional explosives. Second, the nuclear device failed.

If there is another test accompanied by a suitably big bang, we can surmise that the first one was a dud, and that North Korea hasn't got a reliable arsenal. Which is bad news, but not horrible news. One would be reluctant to launch a nuclear attack with a device that stands a good chance of failing, while expecting that the reply might be a hail of similar weapons, most of which will go off quite reliably.

Of course, if the next test fizzles, we'll be left guessing whether it and its predecessor were fakes or duds. But it really doesn't matter either way.

Kim & Sons humiliate Bush & Sons

Kim Jong-il, like his father, Kim Il-sung, is one of the most clever (if, ultimately, one of the least wise) dictators of the past several centuries. He is a master at anticipating the moves of his adversaries, and manipulating them at will. In the popular imagination he is crazy, unpredictable, and self defeating. In reality, he's none of those things. Instead, he is remarkably predictable, and quite expert at getting the results he wants. We think of him as crazy simply because few of us would want what he wants. But if we did want it, we would soon see the extraordinary competence with which he pursues his goals.

In 1991, US President George H W Bush announced plans to withdraw all American nuclear weapons from Korea, to enact significant troop withdrawals, and even expressed hopes that all US military personnel might be withdrawn from the Peninsula. Naturally, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China quietly discouraged it, for they realized that in the absence of American forces they would soon be required to spend a good deal more on defence. It's also well established that, while the US might have economic interests in east Asia, it has no territorial ambitions, which all of the other major players do have. Allowing the US military to maintain a balance of power suits nearly everyone concerned. Indeed, only the North Koreans, then under the leadership of Kim Il-sung, could be counted on to applaud the departure of the "Yankee Capitalist Stooges" with satisfaction.

But that didn't happen. Within three months of the President's announcement, then US Defence Secretary Dick Cheney called a halt to the troop withdrawal because the North Koreans were making it impossible. They were refusing to open their nuclear-energy facility at Yongbyon to IAEA inspection, the sole condition placed on them. Why would they refuse such a small demand, especially when they could so easily have granted it merely to satisfy the condition and then reversed themselves when US forces were too far away to respond? Obviously, because the North Koreans wanted the US military to stay entrenched in the South. Which it did; and there it remains today. And it's Kim Jong-il alone who's keeping them there.

Fun and games with other people's armies

Crazy and unpredictable? Not at all. The US military presence is a great comfort to Kim Junior, as it was to Kim Senior. It serves two purposes. First, it sustains a balance of power which the North Koreans are as eager to see maintained as anyone else in the region; and second, and more importantly, it enables the Kim regime to distract the populace with a constant condition of (fraudulent) military emergency.

State propaganda is forever warning the citizenry of imminent US-led invasions. Villages will be burned, there will be massacres and atrocities galore. The Americans are massed on the border, ready to attack at a moment's notice. Only the constant vigilance of the North Korean people can prevent this catastrophe.

Whenever a country is poorly governed, those in power inevitably talk up some foreign enemy to distract people from deteriorating domestic conditions. A country like North Korea, with its severe shortages of food and fuel, needs a tremendously powerful enemy right on the border to keep the distraction working. If the alien American monster were to withdraw, Kim would swiftly lose his grip on power.

So let's review: the US has been siphoning troops out of Korea and into Iraq, to prolong the agony there. This is something that Kim Jong-il simply cannot afford politically. If he can't point to armed foreign barbarians on the border, his regime will collapse. Kim Junior is manipulating Bush Junior in exactly the way Kim Senior did Bush Senior. He is forcing him to provide a convenient and suitably frightening enemy. And he is succeeding.

Everything the US and the UN do in response to Kim's little nuclear exhibition will strengthen him at home. The state media will dilate profusely on every minor incident, every sanction, every new GI assigned to the South. Even mere talk of punishments or military enhancements will be exploited endlessly and ruthlessly.

But are we in any greater danger because North Korea can fake a nuke test, or bungle one? Not at all. Kim does not want war; if he did, he would already have initiated it. He wants merely to remain in power, and for that he needs the right kind of monsters, just as we all do.

We in the West might be an ideal monster for him, but he is no monster for us. He's just a clever dictator with a lot on his plate these days. ®

Update The US government on Monday "confirmed" (their language) that North Korea did manage a tiny nuclear detonation. Air samples gathered by surveillance aircraft were found to contain the characteristic substances.

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