April 19th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Iraq: winning the peace

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Foreign debt binge threatens economy

Ethanol a solution to air pollution caused lung cancers

Wider focus needed on Murray Darling water controversy

ENVIRONMENT: Federal bushfire inquiry's challenge

TRADE: Safeguarding our $800m wheat contracts

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why shouldn't everyone have the bomb? / Strategic history / North Korean blackmail

MEDIA: Journalism becomes a commodity

LETTERS: Nationals misrepresented (letter)

BOOKS: Globalization and its Discontents, by Joseph Stiglitz

EDUCATION: Iraq: the view in the classroom

DRUGS: United Nations body slams Sydney injecting room

BOOKS: The Marriage Problem: How our Culture has Weakened Families, by James Q. Wilson

BOOKS: Tolkien's Christianity: J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth, by Bradley J. Birzer

FILM REVIEW: Ned Kelly (2003)

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Why shouldn't everyone have the bomb? / Strategic history / North Korean blackmail

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, April 19, 2003
Why shouldn't everyone have the bomb?

Ominous developments in North Korea, where a regime - I hesitate to call it a state - seems bent upon processing weapons-grade uranium, and making nuclear bombs, while building up a stock of missiles with which to fire such warheads, possibly as far as the United States or northern Australia ... should concentrate our minds upon the whole demesne of nuclear warfare, and nuclear politics.

And the dos and don'ts of operating in this sphere.

But certainly, the constant barrage of threats, curses and imprecations coming from Pyongyang could be a harbinger of a new, ugly stage in nuclear politics.

The horrific consequences of nuclear weapons when dropped were, and are, such that many people have always opposed their employment or even their possession. So indiscriminate are they - so completely have they erased the already shaky distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, innocent and guilty- that many people declare nuclear weapons and their use, under any circumstances, as satanic.

These people have become nuclear pacifists - a term used in the 1950s.

The kind of warfare resulting from two or more nations using nuclear weapons against one-another simultaneously, especially if each possesses, and uses, large numbers of bombs, would cause unimaginable destruction and lead to incalculable consequences for the whole global ecological system. Such considerations led many people to say "Better Red than Dead". This when people in the West felt they might have to choose between two odious alternatives: to allow the communists in the shape of Russia to take over the world system and communise it, as Hitler threatened to nazify us with his Thousand-Year Reich or, be prepared to engage in a nuclear war which could destroy whole countries and indirectly jeopardise the future of many more.

In such a war, who was right or who was wrong, who struck first, who was the aggressor, would soon be academic. But both contestants could be destroyed; and two wrongs don't make a right.

Making choices

Not surprisingly, powerful public movements opposing nations waging nuclear war, or possessing nuclear weapons, or allowing other states to site such weapons on their soil, have existed for nearly 50 years. They have had some effect in democratic states, but very little in closed, repressive societies, where public discussion of political decisions, let alone demonstrations against government policies, are simply shut out. So Russian, Chinese, North Korean governments run their nuclear programs without any hindrance from their public; the only limits to their freedom, if indeed there be any, coming from outside, i.e., from other states.

This dissymmetry has placed anti-nuclear movements, as it has pacifists, at a great disadvantage. More seriously, their own governments, if these are checked or prevented by their publics from matching the military advances of other often hostile states - which are closed societies. To try to match opponents who keep acquiring more and more sophisticated and lethal weapons is to join, critics might say, a Brotherhood of Death, or a Murder-Suicide Club; but to fall behind is to accept the eventual domination either of the region, or of the global system, by another nation. How that nation would be likely to exercise its domination could be very important in deciding which way you should go.

The strategic history

The first and most dramatically dangerous strategy was that of attacking or threatening the opponent's cities, as when the Americans attacked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Politics of Terror - the cities not being military but political targets. Targeting cities only, allowed a country with few bombs to be a mortal threat, particularly to nations without any bombs, i.e., unable to attack the aggressor's cities in turn. The victim had no deterrent against nuclear threat or attack.

Naturally such states would want to tie themselves into an alliance with a big nuclear power on the understanding that an attack on a small ally would be treated as an attack on the large one.

Faced with a likelihood of mutual destruction of their cities, the Cold War antagonists diversified their armoury so that they need eliminate only the opponent's weapons, missile sites, and airfields with missile and nuclear bomb-carrying aircraft. But in a preemptive strike; for otherwise you are hammering at the door of an empty stall. But with his nuclear defences neutralised - you can then threaten to pulverise his cities with impunity. He will surrender.

This was the most dangerous stage in the nuclear saga for me and for many others and inspired CND. And Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove. Trying to read the antagonist's mind, e.g. whether he was preparing to attack and scoop the pool, set up high paranoia, an explosion in espionage and a constant fear of war by accident. (For example, mistaking radar messages indicating a flight of missiles when it was really a crowd of geese. This actually occurred. Fortunately, everyone waited to confirm. A risky move to wait, by the way.)

The pathway out was to develop a second strike - an invulnerable collection of nuclear carriers and their bombs - which would survive a preemptive first attack and which could then be activated to retaliate with full force.

Initially this second strike was sited in submarines - with the missiles having a range of thousands of kilometres). They could lurk offshore, even under Arctic ice, etc. So no one possessed any longer an important advantage by striking first.

Both major nuclear antagonists possessed first and second strike capabilities; so any war would be mutually ruinous. Stalemate. Mutually Assured Destruction ... MAD.

This situation assured peace between the two main antagonists and made possible future progressive détente. But it didn't bring in other nuclear powers - China, India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea. Whereas Britain and France who claimed to be, if necessary, independent, also possessed second strikes of a kind.

It seems clear that a state without a credible second strike capacity is going to have to attack first or not at all, and if its first strike is small , it has neither the ability to significantly damage the other state's economy or conventional military forces, nor to take out his presumably complex and decentralised nuclear capacity.

There seems little gain in this, except suicide and some damage to the antagonist. And to threaten first, and be taken at your word, is to program your extinction without any harm to your antagonist. This, prima facie, is North Korea's present situation, with some saving caveats.

Varieties of North Korean blackmail:

1. North Korea is threatening to fire off what nuclear missiles she has, if thwarted in various ways - diplomatically or economically. She could, in theory, destroy a number of cities: South Korean, Japanese or just possibly American. In any of these cases America would be obliged to deal with her.

2. North Korea, with an army of one million, could invade South Korea. Seoul is only 50 kms down the road. She might threaten the use of her anti-city nuclear weapons if America, in conducting the defence of South Korea, were to introduce tactical nuclear weapons against the invading army - or heavily bomb North Korea proper, or, just start defeating her army conventionally.

3. North Korea could collapse and release masses of refugees into an apprehensive South. Although South Korea pretends she wants unification, the dire and destabilising consequences, economically and politically, of the above, makes it extremely unlikely that she really does desire a union. She wants North Korea to remain in one piece, which is why Seoul is all for appeasing Pyongyang - with America picking up the bill, naturally.

4. Russia and China are both politically close to Pyongyang, especially the latter, and North Korea would like to say that either, or both, would protect her or else become very, very angry, were Washington to move against the rogue state. A situation almost desired to embarrass her friends as much as deter her enemies ...

5. North Korea, in fact, is a very good example to produce when people, usually old lefties, demand "why should only America have the bomb" or "why only the big ones have it"? This "egalitarian" plaint - usually to protect Saddam or North Korea - should have its answer in what has appeared above. But some other points can be made.

There has been a long-established club, an inner circle of nuclear powers, endowed with more than half a century of experience of nuclear politics. During that time they acquired a degree of respect for the dangers inherent in the whole military , nuclear culture.

Nuclear war, or even threatening its use in the course of a spat with a rival, became more and more unacceptable. A whole network of understandings, conventions and parameters linked the main actors and promised a steady retreat from the risks of nuclear war.

But continuing proliferation has undermined this atmosphere of comparative trust. There is far less confidence in the political maturity, readiness to keep promises earlier made, and the existence of a sufficiently wide range of nuclear devices and options on the part of countries like Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea. Here it still seems a case of "one strike and I'm out". So the prospect of Iraq or Iran now acquiring nuclear capabilities is understandably alarming.

This has little to do with one's political or cultural point of view. But, alas, in coping with or deterring rogue states, with leaderships feeling that they have little to lose ... it looks as though the UN in its present condition, is going to be of very little use. The Big Powers are going to have to fix it. Or the US alone, with another Coalition of the Willing.

The Logic of the Bomb

Many of us ask - why can't we have a nuclear disarmed world? It is well to remember the original strategic point of the bomb for the USA, Britain and the West. Leaving aside the situational reasons of 1945 - viz cutting short the Japanese war to save casualties, and reducing the time Russia, entering the Pacific War as she did on August 9, would have to be able to overrun China - possessing the Bomb served notice on Russia, whose overwhelming conventional ground strength could not be matched by the West then, or for decades after.

Similarly with China's massed armies. Without the Bomb, the US would not only have had to abandon Vietnam, but quite likely the whole of Asia.

But the virtue of nuclear weapons in negating one's opponent's mass armies was not lost on India facing a Pakistan-China compact. But neither was it lost in its turn on Pakistan. Or on Israel. This argument for a bomb finishes up as a great spur for proliferation. "Anything you can do I can do better". But as someone said, "Life wasn't meant to be easy, comrades".

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