Friday, October 13, 2006

Who's got the bomb?

So, I read on the news that North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb.

Why the bomb? Why the test?
It's pretty obvious why the "People's Republic of Korea" would want to develop nuclear weapons: as a deterrent against a possible US invasion. It's no surprise they feel threatened, since GW Bush has already invaded two other sovereign nations with unamerican governments and has made it clear he considers the PRK in the same vein. There is no way PRK (or anyone else) could compete with the US in a conventional war. But would the US dare to invade a country with nuclear weapons, even if those weapons could only be used within that country (i.e. against the invading troops)? Probably not.

As for the test: a deterrent only works if people believe in it, and what better way to achieve that than by detonating one of the things? Sure, the test has its downside, as it will lead to sanctions and more isolation. But the PRK can survive that (it has for the last 40 years). It cannot survive a full-blown invasion. So the dangers to the North Korean regime of developing a bomb are far outweighed by the dangers of not developing one.

Could the US have prevented this?
On the surface, I find it hard to imagine that the US could have pursued their diplomatic efforts any more incompetently if they tried. That those efforts failed is proven by the bomb test. From the moment Bush described the North Korean regime as evil, the die was cast. What other response was available? "You know, you're right. We are evil. How shocking that we never noticed! But now that you point it out, we'll change at once." No, the North Korean response was the only conceivable one - "No, it is you who are evil, and you won't push us around." American diplomatic policy is that of the schoolyard bully: do what we say or we'll beat you up. Bullying can work in the playground because the threat of violence is immediate, but in international diplomacy, no threat can be more painful than the risk of losing face. The US made the same mistake with Japan in the 1930s; the consequence was Pearl Harbour.

Should I be scared?
So should we be afraid now North Korea has the bomb? Being a mathematician, I try to answer the question using game theory. If we're certain that the bombs will only be used in the case of an invasion, then we are safe so long as we don't invade, and not safe if we do invade, and hence we won't. If on the other hand we believe the bombs might be used on us anyway, then we've got less to lose by an invasion, and the bomb is therefore less of a deterrent. It is therefore very strongly in North Korea's interest to make sure that we are and feel absolutely safe from their nuclear weapons. For North Korea to even countenance selling their bombs across the ideological abyss to Muslim terrorists would be suicidal.

Taking it further: imagine the North Koreans could somehow get their nuclear bomb to, say, Washington, and detonate it. What would happen? The US would leave the whole country of North Korea so radioactive that nothing would ever live there again. From a North Korean perspective, this would be a very bad outcome.

If you doubt my logic, the proof was in the cold war. I have spent much of my life being targeted by nuclear weapons, and I am still here. Much as I hate it, it's the classic argument of deterrence, and up to a point it works.

Does that mean it's ok?
No, it's very much not ok. It's bad enough that one country has such terrible weapons, let alone more. While nuclear weapons exist, it is only a matter of time before someone ends up using one; and the more countries have them, the sooner that time will come. Just because there's a reason behind the North Korean bomb test doesn't mean it's morally acceptable; just because I understand their actions doesn't mean I agree with them. But I fail to understand how it is anything other than gross hypocrisy for the US to criticize North Korea for developing nuclear weapons, just as the US did. And I don't see nuclear weapons alone as the problem. Until we can all live together happily without needing any kind of weapons to "defend" ourselves against other people, none of us will be truly safe.

Sidetrack: when deterrence doesn't work
I mentioned before the principle of deterrence - something I disapprove of but which can be highly effective. As well as forming most of the basis behind our military, it's also one of the key principles behind our criminal justice system. It's worth pointing out, then, that there are two situations where deterrence simply doesn't work.

Firstly, deterrence relies on understanding and following logic. Many people cannot do this, or don't stop to think. A teacher may ask an unruly pupil, "What were you thinking when you did that?" This shows a fundamental misunderstanding: in all probability, if the student had thought about it at all, they wouldn't have done it. In these situations deterrence is meaningless. The same logic applies if you believe your "opponent" is insane or irrational. While this accusation could easily (and rather lazily) be aimed at the PRK, it could also have been aimed at Stalin or even GW Bush - neither of whom have triggered a nuclear war (or in Bush's case, at least not yet). In practice, I don't believe any are crazy enough to initiate a nuclear war that would result in their own annihilation.

Secondly, if the person thinks they cannot be caught, or has no fear of the penalty. A defense policy based on a strong deterrent may prevent invasion, but it isn't so effective against terrorism (or guerilla warfare), because terrorists are generally far too disparate a target for conventional weapons. Suicide bombers in particular are pretty much immune to any deterrence - particularly if they believe that any of their friends who are murdered in retribution will be transported instantly with them to paradise. That is why the US fears terrorism so much: because it undermines the entire basis of US defense policy.

So, what will happen now?
America won't back down. North Korea won't back down. In the short-term, some kind of sanctions will be put in place.

If we're lucky, North Korea will stop testing bombs and just stockpile them quietly, and the Americans will sit down and enforce the sanctions peacefully, and wait for the North Korean regime to change by itself. Maybe the US will blow up a few nuclear plants and claim that North Korea no longer has the capability to produce any more bombs, and hence is limited to what it already has.

If we're unlucky, then either the Americans will demand that North Korea destroys their nuclear capability and proves it to the world, or the Koreans keep testing bombs. The war of rhetoric continues to escalate until the Americans produce an ultimatum threatening war. North Korea, of course, fail to comply - and the US starts a war. Then they can either bomb the country back to the stone age and watch as the entire country starves to death, or launch a ground invasion, crossing their fingers against the appalling possibility of a nuclear weapon being detonated near a major troop concentration. Either way, the consequences are too horrible to contemplate.

There is one other possibility. If the process drags on for long enough, the US could get a better president who decides that his administration needs to distance itself from the last one by (amongst other things) taking a different approach to North Korea. It would be difficult to do so without being seen to give ground to the North Koreans, but that's what top negotiators are for.

Cynical speculation
Putting my cynical hat on now, I'd like to speculate on two things which didn't appear on the news.

First hypothesis: the US knew that their actions would lead to North Korea developing a nuclear bomb, and continued with those actions deliberately. Why? Three reasons.

(1) Knowing that "rogue states" have nuclear bombs will make it easier to justify almost any military expenditure, and it is after all the profits of the military-industrial complex which run the US government.

(2) Knowing that "rogue states" have nuclear weapons will further fuel the climate of fear which the Bush administration is trying to create to prop up their leadership and to justify curtailment of human rights and civil liberties.

(3) Knowing that one "rogue state" has developed nuclear weapons will add weight to the arguments when another invasion is planned, for, say, Iran. If North Korea can do it, so can Iran, and so we'd better invade before they do.

Second hypothesis: the test was a hoax. The North Korean nuclear program isn't yet sufficiently advanced that they have enough bombs stockpiled that they can waste one by blowing it up. The "test" - conveniently underground and contained - actually involved a large amount of conventional explosive. The blast was real, but of course no radiation could be detected. Why? North Korea is in a race against time to develop and effective nuclear deterrent before the US invades it, or just launches airstrikes to demolish key sites. By testing a bomb - or pretending to - they can convince the world they have won the race.


Blogger Martin said...

Thanks for this - Covers several ideas, and is getting my brain thinking, which is good. Nice detail and interesting too.

4:15 PM  

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