Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Nukes for all

Is the world on the brink of a new nuclear arms race, with North Korea's atomic bomb test marking the end of non-proliferation? John Gittings reports

November 1, 2006
5 min read

Have we reached the much-predicted ‘nuclear tipping-point’ now that North Korea has carried out its first test? Of course Pyongyang will not be the first break-out: the ‘international community’ that condemns it didn’t take long to condone Israel, India and, most recently, Pakistan when they went nuclear. Looking back over the past decade and a half since the end of the cold war, the historical verdict will be that the major nuclear powers fatally missed their chance to set the world on a non-nuclear road.

Yet Pyongyang has passed a new red line, not just in its own relations with South Korea and its other Asian neighbours, but for the world. This is not because nuclear weapons in its hands are inherently more dangerous but because the Iraq disaster has put proliferation into an even more dangerous context.

The US invasion allegedly to remove Saddam’s WMD ‘threat’ demonstrated that is safer to be an actual nuclear power than a potential nuclear power. Indeed, North Korea justifies its programme on these very grounds. Even the remotest chance of retaliation is likely to buy immunity – which is why Pyongyang has also been keen (though not yet successful) to demonstrate its long-range missile capability. At the least it will seem prudent for other nonnuclear countries, especially in Asia and the Middle East, to begin their own feasibility studies.

North Korea may have acted rationally in terms of the logic of its adversarial relationship with the world’s only nuclear superpower but this does not mean it has acted sensibly. Going nuclear so visibly could be an own goal for the security of the regime, at worst tipping the neo-con argument in favour of regime change.

(A new book by hawkish China expert Gordon Chang, Nuclear Showdown, actually advocates ‘regime annihilation’ if diplomacy to ‘force peaceful change’ on Pyongyang should fail.) Pyongyang’s action may push Japan further down the road of re-militarisation; and it fatally undermines South Korea’s ‘sunshine diplomacy’, which is already rubbished by the Bush administration. It may even bring China and Japan closer together, something that is not in the interests of Korea, North or South.

If the Bush administration had shown a straightforward willingness to talk, one to one, with Pyongyang, instead of condemning it as part of the ‘axis of evil’, we would be in a much less dire situation now. Washington’s alibi is that North Korea has ‘cheated’ ever since the 1994 agreement to refrain from a nuclear weapons programme was signed. Pyongyang argues that the US and its partners also ‘cheated’ by failing to keep to the agreed timetable for providing energy aid in compensation.

What is clear is that the situation could have been transformed if the Clinton initiative, when Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang and a senior North Korean general was received in the White House, had not been repudiated by Bush.

We should resist the easy journalistic cliches about the ‘rogue regime’ with its ‘crazy’ leader.

Many aspects of the North Korean regime, particularly the leadership cult and the oppressive state apparatus, are deeply disturbing. But everyone who has met Kim Jong Il regards him as capable and rational.

Pyongyang has acknowledged several times that it would be mad to launch a ‘rogue’ nuclear attack. In August 2000, Kim Jong Il said: ‘It is absurd to think we could win a war with the US if we attacked with just two or three intercontinental ballistic missiles, And yet the US makes an issue of this.’

In June this year, North Korea invited US negotiator Christopher Hill to visit Pyongyang for direct talks, repeating an invitation made the previous October. Both invitations were turned down. Hill says he is prepared for direct talks within the context of the ‘five power’ talks, but as Clinton’s negotiator Wendy Sherman has pointed out, he has nothing to put on the table. Washington’s diplomatic body language confirms the suspicions of hardliners in Pyongyang.

Pyongyang’s June statement needs to be recalled now: ‘We have already made it clear many times that if the US is not hostile to us, trust between our country and the US is built and we no longer feel threatened, there will no longer be a need for even a single nuclear weapon … We have already made a strategic decision to abandon our nuclear programme as reflected in the joint statement [of September 2005].’

True or false? Even at this late stage, only calm diplomacy will find out, and the stakes could not be higher. Do we want to live in a world where the number of nuclear states is bound to increase inexorably, or is this the long overdue wake-up call? The clock is ticking to the next review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2010.

The way things are going, it could signal the treaty’s final failure.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes