May 29, 2009

Who's Next?

"First we got the bomb,
but that was good,
'cause we love peace and brotherhood..."

Tom Lehrer, "Who's Next?"

It appears that North Korea detonated a 13-kiloton atomic bomb not too long ago, burying it six miles deep in a huge cavern to disguise detectable details about the blast.  It was most likely an implosion device similar to the "Fat Man" design first tested at Alamogordo by the United States in the Trinity shot, July, 1945.  A Fat Man bomb was detonated over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, with horrific results, as we know too well.  The kiloton yield of this bomb was similar to Nagasaki.

While many Western commentators are quick to analyze Kim Jong Ill's dogged determination to go nuclear as an effort to deter Western (and more specifically American) invasion, I have a feeling it's not as simple as all that.  That's a comforting analysis used by those who are somewhat over-ready to blame America for everything, and while there's always much to criticize about a country which is so influential and controversial, it seems more likely to me that Kim wants a bomb because he's nuts.  Arguing that he wants a bomb to "protect" his North Korean subjects is doubtless a contradiction in terms; if he actually cared about North Koreans, they would not live in a dirt-poor police state, subject to immediate internment (and probable death) in the Yodok Concentration Camp, which may rival Auschwitz in terms of sheer numbers killed at this point.  If one argues that Kim is simply being rational and self-defensive (as is argued often when talking about Ahmadinejad), then it reverses the argument and places the onus on the United States to behave rationally.

Yet, as noted, there's no particular reason to believe that Kim Jong Ill is rational at all.  He is hypothesized as rational in order to fit into the scheme of a predetermined argument, which is that all the United States has to do is behave itself and nothing bad will ever happen, at least where North Korea is concerned.  Rational motives and self-regard are imputed to Kim: he wouldn't be so foolish as to launch a preemptive strike against the West Coast of the United States because his own country would be vaporized in return.  He would, in other words, be committing suicide.  And as we know, no one ever commits suicide.  So we can rule out that danger.

Thus, irony aside, we can see that there's no comfort whatsoever in such simplistic analyses. Kim Jong Ill may be completely nuts and he may be building an atomic bomb so he can use it against another country.  His treatment of North Koreans strongly suggests that he is indifferent to
their fate.

So what do you do when a nut owns an atomic bomb?  We can't really say for sure what he'll do with it.  Those in possession of nuclear technology, such as A.Q. Khan of Pakistan, sometimes become promiscuous about sharing their secrets.  Khan was probably instrumental in the development of both North Korean and Iranian technology.  So what if Kim Jong Ill decides to sell a Fat Man to al-Qaeda?  Is that so far-fetched?  He always needs cash, and al-Qaeda has a lot of Arab (particularly Saudi) bankrollers.  We know that from the famous 28 redacted pages in the 9-11 investigation - Bush & Cheney's intervention to avoid Saudi embarrassment.

"A number of U.S. government officials complained to the Joint Inquiry about a lack of Saudi cooperation in terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks. [---redacted---]. A high level U.S. government officer cited greater Saudi cooperation when asked how the September 11 attacks might have been prevented. In May 2001, the U.S. government became aware that an individual in Saudi Arabia was in contact with a senior al-Qa'ida operative and was most likely aware of an upcoming al-Qa'ida operation." 
That part escaped redaction. If they let that part out, you can imagine how explosive the stuff was that they suppressed.  Still, Cheney, I must admit, has always focussed more than most on the danger of a nuclear explosion within the United States.  Now we can be assured that there is an anti-U.S. nut with a functioning atomic bomb.  It's doubtful it's ready for assembly atop one of those Taepodong missiles - that's very advanced stuff.  We began by dropping bombs out of B-29 bombers in 1945, a far more forgiving technology since the payload doesn't have to withstand all the G-forces involved in intercontinental ballistics.  But maybe one reason Kim buried his bomb so deep was to conceal the bomb's radioactive "signature:"  that particular array of radiation peculiar to specific designs.  That's just a hunch of mine.  If you were going to sell your bomb, that could have obvious advantages.  It might make it harder to trace the origins of the "device."  Would the United States vaporize North Korea on the suspicion it was Kim's bomb?

It's a horrifyingly fascinating subject because of the sui generis nature of nuclear weapons.  You can't fit them into the usual intellectual frameworks for discussing foreign policy. What we now know about even "limited" atomic bomb exchanges is that they will do so much damage to the Earth's ozone layer that it's folly to consider atomic warfare a "local" phenomenon.  If India and Pakistan exchange 30 or 40 atomic bombs detonated over cities, that may doom the Northern Hemisphere to unsustainability.

The subject has always perplexed me.  Nuclear weaponry is a subject so fraught with terror and existential implications that it's impossible to analyze it conventionally.  You have to invent a new kind of survival thinking in order to approach it intelligently, giving up the usual categories of "liberal" and "conservative" positions and becoming absolutely practical.  It's not a question of whether we "ought" to have the bomb and they shouldn't, or whether each "sovereign" who signs the Nonproliferation Treaty should be allowed to develop nuclear technology.  Those are nice, formal arguments which may win the debate for your team but do not alter the fundamental question.  A nut has the bomb; what are we going to do about it?

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