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Nuclear Gooks?

'Nuke the Gooks' has long been the racist cry of the American right eyeing North Korea. Now president Bill Clinton has threatened to destroy that state for allegedly developing its own Bomb.

But is Kim Il-Sung really holding the world to ransom? Or is the USA using the non-proliferation row as an excuse to hold a gun to the third world's head? John Gibson investigates

Since the middle of 1993, the possibility of North Korea having a nuclear bomb has been presented as something which, in Newsweek's words, 'may well be the greatest threat to world peace' (29 November 1993). Speaking to American troops at the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea last July, US president Bill Clinton cited the North Korean threat as the reason why US troop numbers could not be cut in South Korea and Japan. Don't even think about using a nuclear device, he warned the North Koreans, or America will 'annihilate' you.

The issue of nuclear proliferation in the third world has risen high up the list of Western concerns in recent years. In January 1992, the first-ever summit of the United Nations Security Council was convened to discuss this issue. First, the possibility of Iraq getting the Bomb dominated the news. Then attention shifted to North Korea. The imagery was the same: the world was being held to ransom by an unstable dictator with his hands on the Bomb. It was common to link the two countries. 'The UN Security Council cannot avoid thinking about North Korea in terms of the Iraqi experience', argued Ronald F Lehman, former US Assistant Secretary of Defence (Washington Quarterly, Summer 1993). 'History may not repeat itself, but watch the Korean peninsular for a disturbing sequel', warned the Economist in an article entitled 'Apocalypse Asia' (26 March 1993).

There is indeed a link between Iraq and North Korea: they are both impoverished third world nations that have been set up by America, under cover of concern over nuclear proliferation.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) spent a good part of 1992 crawling all over Iraq without finding much. And yet Iraq continued to be demonised and occasionally bombed by the USA, as a potential nuclear threat. In 1993, again without any hard evidence of a Bomb, North Korea became the new demon. The reality is not that Kim Il-Sung is holding the world to ransom, but that America is threatening to destroy North Korea in the same way as it has Iraq.

What evidence is there of a North Korean nuclear threat? The American argument goes as follows. North Korea has had civilian nuclear power for years, a by-product of which is plutonium, the basic ingredient of an atomic bomb. Knowing how long the plants have been operating, it is possible to calculate how much plutonium would have accumulated. If it isn't at the plants, it must be somewhere else. Hence the IAEA wants access to check. North Korea refuses to let IAEA inspectors into its nuclear plants.

The CIA insists that satellite photographs of Yongbyon have shown that there is /was a reprocessing plant designed to separate out plutonium from the fuel rods used in civilian nuclear reactors, and possibly a separate reactor to produce plutonium. It claims that the plant may have been moved, they know not where, last year. North Korea has refused the IAEA access to Yongbyon. North Korea is also said to possess rockets capable of reaching Japan and China. And, the icing on the cake as far as the CIA is concerned, North Korea has said that it is developing a nuclear bomb, and tried to withdraw last March from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Despite this apparent evidence, the CIA's case does not hold together. The basic science needed to make an atomic Bomb is widely known. This does not, however, mean that it is easy to make one. Besides the USA, Britain, France, the USSR, and China, the other states that are thought to have developed nuclear weapons since the Second World War are Brazil, Argentina, Israel, South Africa, Pakistan and India. None of this latter group managed without acquiring, openly and clandestinely, crucial technologies from the existing nuclear powers, or from other advanced capitalist countries. The controls on North Korean access to such technologies have been much tighter, making it highly unlikely that they have made a Bomb, or are anywhere near making one.

There are four basic things needed to make a Bomb: 1) highly trained physicists; 2) reprocessing technology to separate out plutonium; 3) a sophisticated trigger mechanism to create a critical mass of plutonium in a concentrated space in a fraction of a second; 4) a rocket to deliver the bomb. Even were North Korea to make a Bomb, it is highly unlikely that their rockets would be able to deliver it. Israel recently revealed that the US Patriot Missile Defence System used against Iraq's Soviet-built Scud missiles during the Gulf War was useless - there is no evidence of a single intercept. The reason there were so few Israeli casualties was that Iraq's missiles were even more hopeless. North Korea has similar missiles, dubbed 'flying dustbins' by military experts. But even if North Korea had a perfect delivery system, the construction of a Bomb presents a big enough hurdle.

Even the industrialising states now thought to have nuclear weapons could not independently develop the technologies needed to separate out plutonium and make a trigger mechanism. China got crucial assistance from the USSR before links were broken in 1959. The Latin American countries, India, and Pakistan got technology from France and Germany in the 1970s, when economic recession increased competition between suppliers of nuclear technology. Israel and South Africa were always in a special class: as key allies of the Western powers in sensitive regions of the world, their acquisition of nuclear technology was quietly ignored. (For more details on this see J Newhouse, The Nuclear Age).

On its own

After the Soviets helped China to get the Bomb, they became much more cautious with their nuclear technology. China, too, was very careful about whom it assisted. It is well documented that neither gave assistance to North Korea. In fact, the Soviet Union entered into direct cooperation with the IAEA to control North Korean nuclear supplies in 1977. So, if North Korea is trying to develop a Bomb, it is doing so alone. If India was unable to develop a Bomb on its own, North Korea's chances appear very slim.

North Korea is not in a position to threaten anybody. It is a diplomatically and technologically isolated state not far from collapse.

North Korea has a population of 22m people. Its economy is shrinking at an annual rate of around 20 per cent. The government has launched a campaign for people to eat only two meals a day because of food shortages, and clothing is in short supply. Both Russia and China now have stronger ties with South Korea, and have said that they would not support aggressive action by the North. Indeed South Korea now has a more powerful army than North Korea, and it is backed up by the might of the USA. They conduct annual joint manoeuvres on the Korean border-- 'Operation Team Spirit' - during which America will not say whether or not its forces carry nuclear weapons.

IAEA inspectors

North Korea's obstruction of the IAEA, and declaration of its nuclear ambitions, look like nothing more than a bid to get some bargaining power with the South and the USA. It is a desperate step by a fragile regime, and a high-risk strategy. But whichever way you look at it, Kim Il-Sung is only a problem for the North Korean people.

Despite what they say in public, the US authorities are well aware that North Korea almost certainly has no Bomb. North Korea bent over backwards in 1991-92 in an attempt to secure assistance from the West. IAEA inspectors made five inspections in 1992, and by the end of that year most commentators agreed that North Korea had no nuclear potential. But then the plant/ex-plant at Yongbyon was 'discovered' (despite the fact that the CIA had known of its existence since 1989 at least), and more inspections were insisted on. No doubt if Yongbyon is inspected, and found to be empty, another dangerous site will be pinpointed. As in the case of Iraq, every empty building will simply be taken as proof that the devilish reprocessing facilities have been moved elsewhere.

Some commentators now talk about underground tunnel systems containing nuclear technology. It looks as if the Americans won't be happy until they have dug up the whole country. This is because they are not really looking for North Korean nukes. The US authorities have their sights on bigger targets in the debate on nuclear non-proliferation: their aim is to assert Western authority over the third world, and to maintain America's position as the leading world power.

The issue of nuclear non-proliferation has always been about Western domination of the third world. Clearly it is not about nuclear weapons as such, since the massive arsenals of the Western powers never come into the debate. Instead, the debate on nuclear proliferation is about drawing a line between the haves and the have nots. It is all a question of whose finger is on the trigger.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which came into law in 1970, forbids all signatories from possessing the Bomb - unless, of course, they already had it. Furthermore, the American dominated IAEA was given the power to interfere in the internal affairs of non-nuclear states to ensure that they weren't making bombs. As the head of Pakistan's Atomic Energy Commission put it in 1990, 'the non-nuclear weapon states are effectively required to surrender part of their national sovereignty in return for vague and as yet unfulfilled promises of nuclear cooperation'.

In the past, however, the exercise of Western domination over the third world was limited by the exigencies of Cold War diplomacy. The existence of the Soviet Union helped provide the space for third world nations to assert some independence from the West, through forums such as the Non-Aligned Movement.

In order to get third world nations to sign the treaty, the nuclear powers had to offer some sweeteners, of which transfer of technology for civilian nuclear power was the most significant. What's more, the third world states that were bent on acquiring nuclear weapons - Brazil, Argentina, India, and Pakistan in particular - refused to sign the treaty. And there were limits to the measures that the Western powers could take to stop them developing a Bomb. India, for example, used its diplomatic links with the Soviet Union to counter US opposition to its Bomb programme in the 1970s, while Pakistan played East-West tensions the other way around.

Post-Cold War, however, the balance of power has shifted much to the advantage of the West. Last November Clinton proposed that the NPT be made tougher. Plutonium production, he said, was 'not justified on either economic or national security grounds, and its accumulation creates serious proliferation and security dangers'. Of course, since America has more plutonium than it knows what to do with, it won't be affected by any ban on its production. The real consequence of any ban would be to give the West the power to close down the third world's nuclear industry.

Today, in the row over membership of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the USA is giving orders to North Korea on how to conduct its foreign affairs. Under international law, there is nothing to stop North Korea resigning from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as it tried to do last March. And there is nothing which says that a non-member of the NPT cannot have nuclear weapons. By threatening North Korea, America has forced it to remain within the NPT. Like the mafia, Washington insists that membership is for life.

The tightening of the regime on nuclear proliferation is a symptom of the changed balance of power between the West and the third world. In the post-Cold War world, nuclear proliferation is being used as another stick with which to beat the third world. The USA and the Western allies are not worried about countries like North Korea acquiring an atomic bomb. They are more interested in constructing the image of third world demons with the Bomb, in order to legitimise Western militarism and intervention around the globe.

Out of demons

Back in 1991, after destroying Iraq, General Colin Powell, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: 'I'm running out of demons...I'm down to Fidel Castro and Kim Il-Sung.' (Quoted in W Bello, People and Power in the Pacific, p28) The elevation of nuclear proliferation on the Western powers' agenda has been a response to this shortage of credible demons in the third world.

It has been easy for the West to create the notion of a nuclear threat from the third world. All it took was a few stories about ex-Soviet scientists hiring themselves out to third world dictators, added to the spectre of DIY bombs made possible by the flow of plutonium around the globe. In this way, even the weakest nation can be converted into a global threat. By depicting Kim Il-Sung as a dangerous villain simply because he might have the Bomb, the Western powers are seeking to solve Powell's problem by inventing a world full of demons.

The US campaign against nuclear proliferation does not stop at talk. Iraq has already been destroyed, partly on the pretext of preventing Saddam's nuclear programme. The January 1992 summit of the UN Security Council on non-proliferation issued a direct threat to all third world states: step out of line, and you'll get the same treatment as Iraq. Now North Korea finds itself in America's gun-sights on the same issue.

There are also regional reasons making North Korea a likely target for the USA. The Pacific region is set to be a key area for world capitalism into the next century. America is facing the squeeze economically from Japan, while China is emerging as a major player with its own interests. Baring its teeth against North Korea is a way of reminding everyone, especially non-nuclear Japan, that America remains the region's policeman.


America, with British support, has used the nuclear proliferation issue in a bid to remind the major non-nuclear powers who holds the whip hand in the Western alliance. The January 1992 UN Security Council summit (permanent members: America, Britain, France, Russia, China - the nuclear club) coincided with Japanese lobbying to become a permanent member. Not yet, was the message. In 1993 Clinton cranked up the rhetoric against North Korea whenever America's wider role in the Pacific region was up for discussion: during his Asian tour in July, and during the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum in Seattle in November.

Suppose for a moment the CIA's most florid fantasies were true. What if North Korea has got a Bomb? And what if Kim Il-Sung is certifiable? North Korea still wouldn't be the problem. The threat to peace does not come from the poorest states on Earth, nor from crazy little dictators, but from the power games being played out in the third world by the USA and the other Western powers.

Lest we forget recent history: the only country to have used nuclear weapons is the USA. American president Harry Truman said that the dropping of the Bomb on Japan was 'the greatest thing in history'. Since 1945 the same country has used awesome conventional firepower to destroy Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq among others, and has threatened the use of atomic weapons no fewer than 45 times.

Whose threat?

North Korea has been on the receiving end of American and Allied firepower itself, during the Korean War: by 1953 all of its major cities had been levelled. President Truman threatened to use the Bomb on North Korea in 1950, and president Eisenhower threatened the same when he was head of the army in 1951. 'Nuke the Gooks' has been a frequent refrain of American politicians ever since. Those concerned about the threat of war today should turn their attention to the military arsenals of the Western world, and let the North Korean people deal with Kim Il-Sung.

Thanks to Vanessa Adams and Daniel Lowe for material and ideas
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 63, January 1994

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