If Martians visited early last week, they’d probably be scratching their heads as to why North Korea was being treated as a potential trigger for global conflict. Even if the worst case scenario comes true and North Korea does eventually become a fully fledged nuclear state… that would still make it only the ninth nuclear state on the planet, behind the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, India, Pakistan and Israel. No doubt, it is undesirable that the nuclear club should expand; but is it really worth risking a massively devastating war merely in order to prevent the likelihood of such expansion?
To compound the absurdity of the logic involved, there is plenty of evidence that – despite its bellicose rhetoric – North Korea sees its nuclear status as primarily defensive. The relevant example that everyone cites in this respect is that of Muammur Ghaddafi. In the 1980s, Ghaddafi dutifully agreed to axe his nuclear programme in return for the benefits of being welcomed into the international community; and then ended up dead via a rebellion aided and abetted by the very same powers ( the UK, the US, France) with whom he’d signed away his nuclear capacity. North Korea has made it clear that it is not interested at all in making the same mistake. Nuclear status and a reputation for unpredictability are its routine responses. ‘Don’t push me/cos I’m close to the edge’ is Pyongyang’s standard diplomatic message. Back off, everyone.
What can the US do to change the nature of the regime in Pyongyang? Not much. Obviously, the US could always defuse the situation by dialing back its own bellicose rhetoric, and stop its own acts of symbolic aggression. It shows no signs of doing so – if anything it is cranking up such gestures, by adding bombers with selective strike capacity to its current military exercises on the North Korean border. Publicly though, the US Tweeter in Chief has officially given up on heavying China to force North Korea into submission by strangling its economy. The Chinese have declined to do so, past a certain token point. To China’s fury, the US has (a) just imposed sanctions on the Chinese-based Bank of Dandong through which North Korea does its currency dealings, and (b) also imposed sanctions on two Chinese citizens who run North Korean front companies.
A reality check may be in store. If the US ever seriously expected it could simply outsource to China the solution of its North Korea problem, it was bound to be disappointed. That’s because other countries have always been willing to tag team with China against the Americans on this issue. Like for instance, Russia. Yet is anyone really surprised that the Trump administration has been remarkably silent on the growing Russian trade with North Korea – up by 73% in the first two months of this year? Last week, US officials finally began to reluctantly comment on the Russian connection only after the US media reported on it.
“We have seen reports about Russia apparently making up for China sanctions on North Korea,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “We are asking Russia to join us in showing North Korea that the only path to a secure, economically prosperous future is to abandon its unlawful programs that endanger international peace and security.”
Nauert added that it is unclear whether the Russian activity constitutes a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions that imposed sanctions on North Korea, which Russia supported. “This is some new information that’s just coming out, so we’re continuing to take a look at that. We’re just starting,” Nauert said.
So far, Trump has been silent about whether the Russians are actively helping China keep Kim Jong-Un afloat. UN sanctions on North Korea have never exactly been watertight, since they’ve been partly designed to minimise the harm to the North Korean population. (eg the UN allows certain cross border trade and fuel shipments, provided they don’t directly benefit the North Korean weapons programme.) In the next few days, the US, Japan and Seoul are proposing that new and tougher UN sanctions be imposed on North Korea – and reportedly, the US is ‘ considering’ cutting off trade with countries that trade with North Korea.
Really? A few small countries may (symbolically) be put at risk by such moves, but could the US really afford to cut its trade ties with China? Hardly, certainly not without de-stabilising the global economic system. Saner heads than Trump are urging the US to learn to live with the North Koreans and with the nuclear delivery system that it is being predicted to attain over the next 12 to 24 months. The military options – all of them, from strikes against the nuclear test and missile sites, to targeted assassinations of the Kim Yong-Un ruling clique – would inevitably end in disaster, with a death toll on the scale of the Korean war of the 1950s, at best.
Even if the U.S. attempted a pre-emptive strike with a strategically telegraphed goal of convincing Kim it was were “only” taking out his nuclear capability — a very delicate message to say the least — it wouldn’t be easy. The U.S. military don’t have a good fix on the precise location of all elements of his nuclear program, North Korea provides very difficult physical targets (mountains, deeply buried-command-and control facilities), and the regime has invested in keeping a great deal of their weaponry mobile to evade detection.
Any broader pre-emption would likely begin with a widespread strike against Pyongyang’s offensive weapons systems (notably artillery batteries arrayed against Seoul, surface-to-surface missiles, and military aircraft). Using cyberattacks to “blind” the North Koreans’ communications networks, undermine their targeting and their access to the GPS, and above all to neutralize their nuclear capability, would be difficult.
All this would require perhaps three or four Navy carrier strike groups — there are only four deployed around the globe right now — significant long-range air support, coordinated missile strikes from South Korean territory, broader deployment of defensive missile technology such as the THAAD system that is (controversially) being deployed in the south now, and a high-end special forces campaign — all of which would be very difficult to execute with tactical surprise. Pyongyang would almost undoubtedly see it coming, and have time to wreak enormous damage. Soon enough, this would almost certainly lead to engagement on a level of World War II or the Korean War, with hundreds of thousands of casualties. Bad choice.
The UN talks shop
Meanwhile, 122 states at the UN voted last week to ban nuclear weapons. Some folk got really excited by this prospect, notably the Greens’ MP Kennedy Graham:
Dr KENNEDY GRAHAM (Green): In New York right now perhaps the most important event ever to be held is under way. Some 130 countries are negotiating a treaty for the prohibition of nuclear weapons.
Reportedly, there were a few notable absentees from this most important event that’s ever been held:
All of the countries that bear nuclear arms and many others that either come under their protection or host weapons on their soil boycotted the negotiations. The most vocal critic of the discussions, the US, pointed to the escalation of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme as one reason to retain its nuclear capability. The UK did not attend the talks despite government claims to support multilateral disarmament.
No doubt, the hope is that a resolution of this kind will eventually gain similar momentum to prior UN resolutions that helped to push biological weapons and chemical weapons out to the margins of tolerance. In the short term, this UN nuclear weapons resolution will achieve the status of international law if and when 50 states ratify it, a process that’s expected to take about two years.
Australia, Japan, Germany, Russia, Israel and Canada are among the countries that boycotted the UN vote, but New Zealand was among the 122 nations that voted for it. It should be noted that a few years ago, many countries tried (and failed) to classify the Middle East as a UN-mandated nuclear free zone. We voted against that measure, which was widely interpreted at the time as a tactic calling attention to Israel’s status as the only nuclear-armed state in the region. With the usual logic that governs nuclear proliferation, the US has long argued that Iran’s potential to become a nuclear state poses more of a risk than Israel’s actual possession of nuclear weapons. Par for the course. In the name of deterrence, some current members of the nuclear club reserve the right to wage war against anyone ( read : Iran or North Korea) that looks like qualifying as a member. Its that kind of club.
Atomic Power of Song
Down the years, atomic power has inspired a number of songs linking it to theology (God gave humans nuclear power and free will, and we better not misuse them) or to the power of romantic love. Elton Britt’s “Uranium Fever” on the other hand, was a useful reminder that the atomic age could also be about having a barrel of fun with your Geiger counter:
More often, atomic power has been likened to romantic attraction and its potential for destruction. Sheldon Allman’s 1960 single “Radioactive Mama” came replete with the usual metaphors: ‘We’ll reach critical mass tonight.” etc etc
His gruesome follow up’ Crawl Out Through The Fallout’ however, managed to make romance, post apocalypse, sound really grim:
Finally though, nothing beats William Onyeabor’s sinuous fusion of romantic love and thermonuclear devastation: