Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

The madness of (nuclear) war

Australias room temperature Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, knew just what to make of North Koreas supposed nuclear test last week.

Its a humiliation for China, he gasped, reaching for the smelling salts. And hes right; Beijing had done its diplomatic best to prevent the test and was thoroughly miffed at being ignored.

But Washington wasnt exactly crowing either. George Bush has stated repeatedly that he will not tolerate a nuclear armed North Korea. Well now hes confronted by one: so whats he going to do about it? More to the point, what can he do about it?

Predictably the first reaction was to unload on the countrys Dear Leader, the peculiar Kim Jong-Il, a man for whom Bush professes a visceral hatred.

Obviously hes as mad as a tin full of worms. Outraging international opinion, thumbing his snubby little nose at the entire civilised world, pretending to be the equal of the great powers, off in a dream of his own. Hes got to be insane and thats why we just cant deal with him.

Our own Dear Leader, John Howard, describes his North Korean counterpart as just crazy. The Australians Washington-worshipping foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, is more cautious: Kim is only half mad, but he does have a bouffant hair style clear evidence of a vicious mental instability. Lets face it, hes just not rational: why else would he starve his own people to build one pissy little bomb?

Well, in pure self defence, actually. Kim may be a thoroughly nasty piece of work; a spoiled, self-indulgent bully with a silly hairdo rather like Alexander Downer writ large, actually. But this does not mean that he is a lunatic or even a fool. Those who have had face-to-face contact with him report a sharp and well-informed mind perfectly capable of seeing the logic of his situation and the choices it offers.

So lets go back to the mid 90s, when Kim inherited the failed state from his father, the great leader Kim Il-Sung. And it was failed: the place was totally under-developed and all but bankrupt with no obvious way out. To make matters worse the first few years of the new regime were years of drought and famine in which literally millions died.

The immediate priority was foreign aid, and Kim was prepared to suspend his countrys nuclear program to get it. An agreement was reached with the Clinton administration in Washington under which North Koreas single small nuclear reactor was shut down in exchange for the promise of two civilian-type reactors incapable of producing weapons-grade uranium. The slogan of the day was sunshine diplomacy; there was even talk of reunification with South Korea.

But when George Bush came to power, everything changed. In 2002 Bush made his axis of evil speech, in which he linked North Korea with Iran and Iraq as a rogue nation intent on developing weapons of mass destruction, and promptly invaded Iraq. The message was clear: North Korea was also a target. All bets were off. and Kim pressed ahead with plans to develop the only possible weapon which might deter an attack: its own bomb.

It should be noted that there was no subterfuge involved: in 2003 Pyong-Yang formally withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and declared its intention to the world. It also offered an alternative: a bilateral non-aggression pact with Washington combined with a package of economic aid. The Neo-cons in Washington regarded such an offer as an insult and dismissed the suggestion as the wimpiest kind of appeasement. Their preferred response was threats and abuse. Vice president Dick Cheney, who comes across as a lot loonier than Kim, snarled that the United States would not negotiate with evil; instead, it would destroy it.

So what real choice did Kim have? Even if he had abdicated, it was clear that Washington had no plans to reconstruct his country; if there were ever any doubts, what happened in Iraq would have settled them. Kim must know he is riding a tiger, and might well prefer to dismount; but Bush and his Republican Guard just wont let him. This may be scary, but its not mad.

Actually madness is sometimes defined as persisting with a course of action after it has become clear that it produces the wrong results. On this basis Washington, not Pyong-Yang, is the funny farm. Bush and his enforcers insist that their policies are aimed at reducing the risk from weapons of mass destruction; and particularly at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. This worthy claim would be more convincing if the United States was prepared to ratify the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty itself and to carry out its consequent obligation to reduce its own stockpiles of nukes. Until this happens, nations which feel threatened by Washingtons doctrine of pre-emptive strikes will continue to take whatever measures they have available to avoid the awful fate of Iraq.

More often than not this will involve going down the North Korean route to nukes. After all, history is on their side. Since the self styled Big Three (the US, USSR and UK) sought to declare their monopoly in 1949, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and now North Korea have joined the club. Iran will probably be next, and the North Korean example may well encourage a spread within the region to South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and perhaps even Vietnam. Saudi Arabia is also said to have a nascent program.

At least the old cold war, with its preventative doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was bilateral. The new multilateral set up is already looking many times madder than MAD.

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