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These things were sent to test us

March 12, 2013
The Great Twitterers (or are we Twits?) of the Oslo Conference

The Great Twitterers (or are we Twits?) of the Oslo Conference

So get this: I’m sitting in an enormously successful conference in Oslo where one after another states are calling for a ban on nuclear weapons. I’m twittering (or tweeting – both words are equally silly) to the world when up jump 140 characters on my screen that really annoy me:

#OMG North Korea threatens to tear up 1953 Korean War cease-fire if it doesn’t get its own way about everything #goodbyeworld #dayspoiler

Actually, that isn’t exactly what the tweet said, I made it up because I can’t be bothered to spend the next hour trawling through twitter for the genuine one – but you get the gist.

I turned to my neighbour and showed him the North Korean tweet and then moved on to the next joyous 140 characters of nuclear abolition. My point being this: every time we think we’re about to take a step in the direction of a nuclear weapon-free world, North Korea says “think again”. To be quite frank with you, I find it more than a little disappointing.

Take the State of the Union speech in which Obama barely mentioned nuclear weapons at all and only lamely promised to have another chat with Russia some day. Only two days before he gave that speech, the New York Times and most other media of the world were full of the news that he was about to announce “drastic reductions” in the number of nuclear weapons. What happened? The North Koreans tested a nuclear weapon. Bang goes disarmament.

And let’s go back to 2009 and that famous Prague speech where Obama declares that he is working to attain a nuclear weapon-free world – a real game-changer. North Korea tests another long-range missile.

It seems to be becoming a habit. And despite the fact that I have been touting the line that the North Koreans are misunderstood and the US needs to offer them genuine peace treaty and security assurances, my patience is also wearing thin.

In a conversation with a German government official recently, in which he was complaining vigorously about North Korea and Iran, I proposed that he should try to look at the situation differently. “These things are sent to test us”, I said smugly. “Every conflict is a hidden opportunity for real change.” He probably had a good giggle about that with his colleagues after I’d gone.

But what I meant was this: There are certain problems we really do need to solve before we can abolish nuclear weapons. This is not a popular concept with many in the nuclear disarmament community who say there should be no preconditions to negotiating a nuclear abolition treaty. That may be so, and nevertheless these problems will have to be solved within the process or the treaty won’t be worth the paper it is written on. The problem that North Korea – and Iran to some extent – is posing is how to deal with the security needs of a regime that you would rather not deal with at all and which is so culturally different that everything seems like a riddle. All the old tried and tested methods of negotiation lead you exactly nowhere. One day you think the problem is solved by another delivery of oil, grain or light water reactors, the next they are threatening South Korea with using nuclear weapons.

Now I’m not going to attempt to provide a comprehensive solution to this problem. I might be clever but I’m not THAT clever. I do want to point out, however, that the US and South Korea might be aggravating the problem by their own behaviour. Conducting war games on North Korea’s borders, bringing 3,000 more US troops into South Korea bringing the total up to 30,000, ratcheting up the sanctions, blacklisting DPRK government officials and so on. It often appears in the media as though the North Koreans suddenly decide to do something dreadful, rarely do we hear what the context of their behaviour is. There are always two sides to a conflict.

All the same, the disarmament community needs to pass judgement on any country  that goes around threatening others with nuclear annihilation. Let’s be fair, we have criticised others for the same. I actually don’t buy this idea that North Korea has no choice but to play the sabre-rattling game. And yet, North Korea’s nuclear threat is in some ways very useful to our cause. It shows that nuclear deterrence doesn’t always work which – because of the humanitarian consequences – makes it untenable . Because what if it isn’t a bluff and they are deadly serious?

Let’s look at that more closely. North Korea threatens to use nuclear weapons on Washington and Seoul if the UN Security Council votes for more sanctions. Since the sanctions were passed, that is clearly a case of deterrence not working. Why didn’t it work? Was the threat not credible? Was it that noone could believe that a country would use the most heinous of all weapons on another country simply to stop sanctions? Surely that would not be rational?

The assumption underlying nuclear deterrence is that all parties will behave rationally should the moment arrive when a decision to use nuclear weapons is to be made. I have heard tell from deep inside the DPRK regime that what we call rationality is in short supply. They no longer care about the humanitarian cost of the use of nuclear weapons. Their backs are against the wall. We simply have no idea of what state of mind causes such threats, but it resembles absolute desperation.

I have just finished reading Ward Wilson’s excellent book “Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons”. In it he describes the decision by Japan to capitulate at the end of World War II. Surprising to many though it may seem, he makes a pretty plausible argument that the Japanese regime would not have surrendered because of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, but because their army faced defeat by the Soviet Union who had begun an invasion on August 9. He describes how the Japanese government callously watched city after city be destroyed (and the question arises whether those blanket bombings with conventional weapons were not also war crimes) allowing hundreds of thousands of civilians to be killed every day. It is not plausible to believe that they would then capitulate because the US had destroyed another city, albeit with a new type of weapon. What it does show us, however, is the state of mind of a country at war. All bets are off.

In my view, North Korea is stuck in a perpetual mindset of war. And this makes it really dangerous. Pushed to an extreme, they may decide to go out with a bang. What we are treating as somehow slightly laughable and annoying could be the lead-up to the nuclear detonation we were discussing in Oslo. All the talk of preparation, burn beds and bunkers at that conference made me think about the actual possibilities of intentional or accidental use of nuclear weapons. Right now, North Korea should make us seriously think about how to prevent a nuclear war.

Xanthe Hall is nuclear disarmament campaigner for IPPNW Germany

  1. Erika Simpson permalink
    March 14, 2013 4:49 pm

    Xanthe Hall’s ideas are very thoughtful and perceptive. This is a very interesting and well done piece. It is witty, informal and modern. It is also a clever analysis of the problems with nuclear deterrence. I hope this article is given more widespread circulation, perhaps among experts working on how to affect North Korea’s decision-making during the current crisis. It might be useful to send hard copies of it to the Carnegie Endowment’s April conference so attendees could pick up hard copies or read it on a blog? I am thinking about showing it to my students here at Western University as we just did two simulations on the North Korean crisis so they are looking for good ideas. Good work!

  2. March 12, 2013 5:42 pm

    I share Xanthe’s concern that we are too quick to shrug off any threat of nuclear weapon use as a bluff — or to assume it will have the desired effect. Which one is it!? When ‘they’ do it, it’s a bluff. When ‘we’ do it, it’s effective.
    One of Ward Wilson’s points is that deterrence claims a role far greater than simply deterring nuclear weapon use. The logical extension of this is that deterrence should essential freeze the entire geopolitical scene. No one should dare to alter the landscape in the slightest, since any such change could lead to a chain reaction of moves including ultimately the use of nuclear weapons. If such a freeze could be demonstrated, that would be pretty compelling evidence in favor of nuclear deterrence. Of course there is no such evidence; the geopolitical landscape is in constant flux and the notion of freezing it by any means is quite absurd.
    So where are the ‘red lines’? The truth is no one knows. While this is meant to keep everyone on their toes, and on their best behavior, it guarantees nothing. In an nuclear crisis, and there have been several, each side believes its red line is close to being violated. But if deterrence were actually working why would we be so near the brink? Are we simply lucky that every threat was either a bluff or had the intended effect? How long can that luck last? More to the point: why are we gambling in this way with the fate of humanity. And who are the nuclear weapons states to gamble with what is not theirs?
    (And none of this factors in the wold card: nuclear war by accident.)

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