Friday, February 11, 2005

NorKs and Nukes

North Korea now claims that it has the Bomb.

Arguably, this is (a) not really news, and (b) not necessarily true. (See below.) Nevertheless, it is a bit scary.

In Cold War days, only a few nations could obtain nuclear weapons. Since such weapons require a fairly sophisticated scientific and industrial establishment, it follows that any possessor of such a weapon must have a lot to lose. But technological progress and economic globablization mean that much more marginal states can aspire to this sort of weaponry. Pakistan is a country whose central government has no real authority in large parts of its territory -- the places where remnants of Al Qaeda (including Bin Laden) are likely hiding. Nevertheless, Pakistan has nukes.

You know, I used to laugh at old science fiction stories in which you'd have both super-science and sword-play. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs! Typically these stories would show highly advanced technological societies cheek-by-jowl with lawless, barbarian-filled wilderness, and that seemed like an unlikely combination to me. It would be as if, when you left Chicago, the paved road stopped at the city limits and beyond that was a patchwork of feudal estates. However much fun it was, such a world didn't make much sense. But isn't that a little like Pakistan, a place where tribal warlords and a nuclear arsensal are both potent political factors?

And then there is North Korea, a nightmare of a country, ruled by thugs, many of whose people are literally starving. And they have nukes, or say they do, and are also pretty far along in missile technology.

I think that the North Korean regime, which takes the concept of "paranoid" to a whole new level, has long seen its own existence threatened. The shocking economic imbalance between North and South has grown decade by decade, giving the lie to any propoganda about the superiority of hardline Communism as a social system. Then the Berlin Wall fell, along with dictators like Ceaucescu and Honecker. The North Korean leadership must have looked at them and thought, We're next.

My theory, which is hardly original with me, is that the North Koreans are building nukes as a kind of blackmail/insurance scheme. The idea is to make themselves so dangerous and unbalanced that the rest of the world would not dare to allow the regime to be in peril. Faced with an existential threat, who knows what Pyongyang might do? To avoid catastrophe, they reason, the South Koreans and the Chinese and the Japanese and the Americans would be willing to prop up the NK's.indefinitely. Think of it as a new wrinkle on Mutually Assured Destruction.

And I have to admit, this strategy, or something like it, seemed to work in 1994 when the North Koreans first made a crisis out of the nuclear issue. President Clinton and former President Carter stepped in and negotiated a deal that provided security guarantees and economic benefits in the form of fuel supplies. From this point of view, a lot of the really crazy and scary behavior of North Korea makes a horrible kind of sense. They want to make sure that the rest of us believe that they are capable of anything. (During the Cold War, Richard Nixon once posited the "crazy man in the White House" theory, the idea that it would be a good idea if the Soviets did not quite know how far an American president was willing to go in a confrontation. As far as I can tell, the North Koreans have turned this into their main strategic doctrine.)

So I am not quite convinced that the North Koreans are telling the truth this time. They may not need actually to build a deployable nuclear weapon; they simply need for the rest of the world to fear that they might have. (The existence of a thing that can make a nuclear explosion is not the key issue. An explodable piece of apparatus is not necessarily a usable weapon. Exactly what can the NK's blow up? Pyongyang? Seoul? Tokyo or Seattle?)

Of course, the threat is only credible because the NK's might actually have something usable. It does not have to be pretty to be a dangerous capability. And since North Korea is one of the most closed societies on Earth, it will be very difficult to assess precisely to what extent they are bluffing. And what if the "crazy man at the top" really is a lunatic?


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