'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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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