October 10th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

The Korean Bomb: Calm Down, Everybody

Well, assuming that the fascinating rumors of Korea's nuke actually having fizzled and the seismographs having only picked up the detonation of the explosives that were supposed to have imploded it but failed are false, Korea now has nuclear weapons. Or at least they had one. Pessimistic analysts are capping their most pessimistic estimates at ten, so okay, let's say that Korea has anywhere from zero to ten nuclear weapons. Let us give them the benefit of the doubt, just in the interest of imagining worst case scenarios, and assume that all ten are the type of plutonium compact warheads that can be put on a nuclear missile. Let us further assume that somehow Korea can finance ten missiles of the their most advanced model to date, the one that has a success rate on launch of maybe one in three. Let us, in the further interest of scaring ourselves as much as possible, assume that of the therefore three warheads that they could launch that wouldn't blow up on the pad or shortly thereafter, all three of them would evade our goofy boondoggle SDI missiles, the ones that exist only as a way of matching European subsidies to their aerospace firms with our own covert subsidies to defense contractors -- okay, I don't have a hard time believing that. Let us further drift into the realm of the improbable and assume that the flight and any near misses we might score wouldn't damage any of those warheads enough to disable them and that therefore all three warheads would detonate upon arrival in Alaska, or, if everything broke in North Korea's favor, maybe also Seattle and Portland. What are we talking about here for an outcome for this improbable worst-case scenario?

If everything possible went right for North Korea and wrong for the US, we would have three or maybe four detonations of (current estimate) about one third the yield of the Hiroshima bomb somewhere in or near three of our cities. Since we don't build our cities out of paper the way pre-WWII Japan did, there would be no major firestorm, so the total damage from each blast would consist of a couple-block-sized building-wrecking explosion and maybe three to six blocks per bomb of areas that would require a major hazmat cleanup. Three World Trade Center attacks, for which we'd get at least half an hour's notice when our spy planes and AEGIS cruisers and monitoring satellites all detected the launch. Oh, I'm so scared -- the result might actually raise the US's murder rate for the affected year (assuming we counted them as murders) by a whole fraction of one percent. Immediately thereafter, the US would, with the full and enthusiastic permission of every country in the world including North Korea's own allies, nuke the living crap out of Pyongyang and anyplace else we thought their leadership might be hiding, with anywhere up to several thousand nukes if we thought we needed them.

Ah, say both the wingnuts on the right and scattered cowards from across the spectrum, but what if Korea were to get hungry enough to sell those nukes to terrorists? What if Korea's security forces were to get lax and those nukes were to be stolen by terrorists? You know what? Back when I was a kid during the Cold War, I was dumb enough to think this was a plausible scenario. I grew up and smartened up; let me smarten you up on this, too. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is that stupid. Until the new Russian government bought them back, Kazakhstan briefly had The Bomb, a land crawling with Islamic separatists of all stripes including al Qaeda. No nukes were lost. Russia itself went for the last half of the Cold War without being able to feed, let alone pay, their nuclear missile technicians and the troops guarding their nukes. Those people sold everything else on the base, but no nukes went rogue. Several years ago, Pakistan, a country whose intelligence service still enthusiastically supports Taliban anti-American terrorists in Afghanistan and which just negotiated a surrender to al Qaeda rule in the northwestern parts of the country, got the Bomb. Heck, their nuclear scientists were the ones who sold the necessary technology to North Korea ... but they still haven't let the Taliban or al Qaeda have one. Nobody's going to do that. They know what would happen to them if they did ... and not just from us, but as likely as not from the unlikely-to-be-grateful terrorists themselves.

Should American soldiers stationed along the De-Militarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea be afraid of North Korean nukes? A few years ago, I would have said yes. But then I watched what happened when both India and Pakistan detonated their first nukes scant days apart. Given Pakistan's past recklessness about supporting terrorism inside countries they disapproved of, and given the number of times that Pakistan and India have gotten into full-fledged shooting wars over the disputed (and indisputably worthless) Kashmir plateau, I was one of those who took it for granted that the best we could hope for was for everybody else to stay uninvolved once the Indian and Pakistani nukes started flying. Is that what happened? Nope. We were all wrong. What happened instead, to the world's vast surprise and ill-disguised discomfort, is that for the first time since Pakistan declared their independence from India, India and Pakistan have both finally gotten serious about permanent peace talks.

Which goes a long way towards proving that Kim Jong Il isn't crazy after all, and neither was his father Kim Il Sung. No matter who told you otherwise.

The whole "crazy" reputation owes nearly everything to both men's willingness to literally starve their countrymen, their citizens, to the ragged edge of extermination. Any food and fuel and medical supplies sent as aid was stolen before it could get to starving people, smuggled across the border into China, sold to peasants at far-below-market prices, and the cash smuggled back into Korea. There it was combined with any cash aid, also stolen before it could reach any needy people, and smuggled back out of the country to be used to buy Russian missile technology from Iraq and other former Soviet client states, and to buy nuclear warhead designs and the tools needed from Pakistan. These were then smuggled back into North Korea, where they took the necessary four or five decades of work in deep secrecy to get to where they are now. It was, of course, a horribly inefficient process; just the bribes alone needed to move that much cash and that much material across that many borders must have eaten half or more of the money, and given that they were competing against China's own government-subsidized food and fuel and medical aid to the rural provinces, they can't have been getting 10% of what the stolen goods were worth even before paying out all those bribes. No wonder it took them so long. And that seems crazy to our intelligence analysts, because even with a (barely fed) million man army to keep the public down, those decades of starvation and deprivation could have and should have produced the kind of revolt that overthrew the Soviets, any day now. But they didn't; on the contrary, while there have been dissidents who fled the country, an awful lot of the North Korean people seemed perfectly adequately resigned to living in that kind of deprivation until the nuclear missile program was done.

Insane? No, arguably pretty smart. Remember that technically, North Korea is still at war with the United States. Yes, there's a fifty-plus-year-old cease fire agreement still in place. No, we haven't attacked them even once in that whole fifty-plus years, not least of which because we still have no confidence that we could win the war with Red China that would result if we did. However, the US, like everybody else in the world including both halves of Korea, is dedicated to the proposition, written into that cease fire agreement, that the partition of Korea into North and South was never meant to be anything other than a temporary measure. Sooner or later, everybody agrees, there will be only one Korea again. And the US has never hidden, even for a moment, its determination that nothing short of a South Korean conquest of North Korea, a capitalist "democratic" government replacing a toppled single-party Communist government, is acceptable to us. And you know what? Contrary to the terms of the cease fire that "ended" the Korean War, the US has never held any substantive negotiations towards a final peace agreement, towards that reunification.

All of that suffering, all of that starvation of the Korean people, was nothing more or less than what it took to make America return to the Korean War peace talks ... and not just to do so, but to do so and negotiate in good faith, as someone who could conceivably take unacceptable losses now if the peace talks were to be completely abandoned, the cease fire wiped away, and hostilities were to resume. Sure, George Bush is saber-rattling like mad, because he's spooked by the prospect of having to negotiate with someone he can no longer just freely bully or ignore. And sure he says he'd never negotiate with the Kim family over anything because he doesn't trust them to keep their end of any bargain. But then, what's his word worth, given that he's the man who promised to bring us Osama bin Laden dead or alive, and to hunt down and destroy any government that tolerated al Qaeda or the Taliban, and all because he had solid proof there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? What's the word worth of the man who promised us that the US would never torture anybody while hundreds of Iraqis were being tortured in our military prisons and while an innocent Canadian citizen was being tortured (alongside other real or fake terror suspects) by the CIA? And even if he does inexplicably and unprecedentedly keep his word this time, two years from January he won't be president. And in the meantime, now that they've actually achieved their goals, the North Korean government can go back to feeding their own people.

Hell, we shouldn't being worrying that the troops we have on the edge of the DMZ will be nuked by Kim Il Sung. We should be worried that Bush'll actually make peace with North Korea, pull those troops out, and let the Neocons shovel 'em into the belly of Moloch in Iraq or, gods forbid, Iran. Now that North Korea has the bomb, they're safer where they are than they'd be if they were home.
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