Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Answer alas is 'No'

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Byline by M.J.Akbar : The Answer alas is 'No'

If Saddam actually had nuclear weapons, would America and Britain have invaded the country? That might be called the nuclear paradox. But the world’s nuclear regime was challenged and changed not in East Asia but in South Asia.

The Answer alas is 'No;

The silence, as happens so often, was louder than an explosion. North Korea announced this week that it had nuclear weapons (for "self-defence" naturally) and suspended disarmament talks with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. In simpler language, North Korea was telling America: "We have weapons of mass destruction. Come and get us." The answer so far is — I was going to resort to the familiar "deathly silence" but that phrase might be too close to the bone.

North Korea has been candid before. In September 2004 it announced at the United Nations, no less, that it had transformed material for nuclear weapons "into arms" but it wasn’t in the White House’s interest to shift the message from Iraq. The paradox is almost funny, except of course that it isn’t. America, which splintered the operating unity of the Big Powers in the United Nations over its determination to believe that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, ignored an admission as candid as it could get. The White House spokesman said that it was a "regional" issue that should be dealt with by North Korea’s neighbours.

How many national armies would have been lined up against Saddam Hussein if he had ever suggested anything even remotely as dangerous? How many armies will move against Iran if it suggests, even obliquely, what North Korea has claimed formally, officially, unambiguously, repeatedly? Have different standards been allotted to different regions of the world?

According to Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies, writing for YaleGlobal Online, the United States has assessed that North Korea has an arsenal of "roughly eight plutonium-based weapons, and it is known to have production capacity for roughly one weapon per year". North Korea also has facilities for enriching uranium, another actual or potential source for nuclear weapons. So what happens? Nothing. So why isn’t anyone interested in spreading democracy to North Korea? South Koreans have democracy. America already has troops on the North Korean border. It does not need United Nations authorisation for mobilisation. And yet a great deal of nothing continues to happen. America urges Pyongyang to engage in talks, and offers scaled levels of incentives for de-weaponisation. When Iran is already engaged in talks with France, Germany and Britain over its nuclear status, Vice President Dick Cheney coyly suggests that Israel could, or perhaps should, bomb Iran while Condoleezza Rice icily suggests that the time for an invasion of Iran has not arrived "as yet".

One problem, of course, is realism. The cost of invading a nuclear state is far too high simply because of the horrendous damage it could cause even in its descent into defeat and destruction. North Korea has already indicated its missile capability by "mistakenly" sending a missile over Japan. So while it might not be able to threaten the United States, it remains a serious concern to South Korea and Japan, the bulwark American allies in the region. The threat of havoc makes nuclear weapons a supremely powerful deterrent. Israel has insured its national security by going nuclear, a right denied to any of its antagonists.

If Saddam actually had nuclear weapons, would America and Britain have invaded the country? That might be called the nuclear paradox. But the world’s nuclear regime was challenged and changed not in East Asia but in South Asia.

The world, as defined by the victors of World War II, was fundamentally altered in the summer of 1998 when India conducted three nuclear tests at Pokharan on 11 May, followed it up with two low-yield explosions on 13 May. On 28 and 30 May Pakistan joined the nuclear club with five tests in the Chagai hills of Baluchistan.

The two rewards that the five victors of World War II (America, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China) reserved for themselves were a veto in the Security Council of the United Nations and the right to nuclear weapons. The first was explicit, the second implicit. That was why there was little or no protest when China went nuclear in 1964, despite being outside the UN regime at America’s insistence (China’s seat was held by Taiwan). The rest of the world was offered sermons when it sought nuclear capability. Jawaharlal Nehru responded with a ruse. Conscious also of the Gandhi mantle that the Congress leadership still wore, he made disarmament the policy but encouraged India’s scientists to develop independent nuclear facilities. Indira Gandhi made this official with the Pokharan test in 1974. Pakistan began to build its bomb only after 1974 but by 1998 had acquired sufficient capability for psychological parity. In the past seven years both nations have enhanced their arsenals and improved their delivery systems. The geopolitical implications will be more apparent over time, particularly if tensions between India and Pakistan begin to come down.

The reality is that the nuclear club now consists of eight members and there is nothing much that anyone can do about at least seven of them. The jury is out on the eighth, North Korea. Does North Korea constitute a case for separate treatment?

One concern that the rational world shares above the host of differences in approach and policy is that terrorism is an unacceptable threat to stability and civilisation. One of the genuine nightmares in an age of expanding knowledge is the possibility of a garage bomb (a home-made nuclear device) being used by a terrorist group. Other nightmares include chemical, biological and radiological weapons being used against civil society. It is important, therefore, to identify a rogue state (or, more accurately, a rogue government) that would feel no sense of obligation to world order, and actively connive with terrorist groups or organisations.

Of course it is necessary here to define terms that we are using. An enemy government does not automatically become a rogue government. For more than four decades the western Anglo-European alliance led by America fought a cold war against the Soviet-led alliance that often simmered with a great deal of heat, but while either side had the power to blow up the world many times over neither did so. Even when one of the protagonists accepted de facto defeat, its government did not launch nuclear missiles in despair or anger. India and Pakistan have come to the brink as well after going nuclear, but have (perhaps to the disappointment of interventionists) behaved responsibly. If there is uncertainty, then it is only about the government of Kim Jong-II, son of a "Dear Leader" whose deadly idiosyncrasies were in the Idi Amin mould, and who runs a closed, totalitarian state that hides famine behind a cloak of terror. These are widely accepted perceptions.

It is curious that the United States, formally engaged in a worldwide war against terrorism, seems so disengaged about the one country that would fit many of the paradigms that it has designed to describe the syndrome. There is credible evidence that North Korea supplied uranium to Libya when Colonel Gaddafi was a customer. Its missiles are among the best in the world. What more does North Korea have to do to identify itself as a possible if not active problem? One is not suggesting that Washington leap into war, which of necessity must remain the last option. But question marks do begin to arise against George Bush’s apparent indifference. His predecessor Bill Clinton showed sustained concern and involved North Korea in a dialogue that showed some promise. George Bush has two eyes as well, but they are focused on only one point.

Is this because North Korea is not situated in the Middle East, astride substantive energy resources? Would George Bush have ordered another mobilisation if Pyongyang was where Baku is? "Let the neighbours worry; we have other things to do": would this have been the response if Syria had eight active nuclear bombs, the possibility of many more, and a missile delivery system that had a market around the world?

Such questions seek an answer, but there is a secondary problem: who is now credible enough to give an acceptable answer? Is it time to turn the United Nations into an NGO for tsunami relief and hand over such questions to a new world body? Is a veto by a victor of a war that ended sixty years ago still the means to a solution? I don’t know the answers to the previous questions, but I know the answer to the last one. No.

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