To understand all is not often to forgive all, but on the other hand, being pig-ignorant doesn’t help much. So let us try to understand what it’s all about with North Korea.
Korea had the extremely depressing fate of being colonised very late by the most brutal colonialist of all, namely Japan which seized Korea in the 1890s (after centuries during which Korea had focussed most of its attention on keeping the Japanese out and the rest of it on keeping the Chinese out). Japanese imperialism, impressively, managed to get worse and worse as time went on, but there wasn’t much that the Koreans could do about it until one fine day the Soviet Army rocked up to tell them that it was all over, by which time the Japanese were running away as fast as their weary legs would carry them — usually not fast enough, unluckily for them.
But the Soviets had done a sleazy deal with the Americans, who had fired the starting-gun for the Soviet invasion by nuking Hiroshima — they would get north Korea and the Americans could get south Korea. The Soviets, being brutal, thuggish Commies, installed Kim Il-Sung, the leader of the Korean resistance against the Japanese, in power. The Americans, being democratic and caring people, installed a clique of collaborators with the Japanese fascists. On both sides of the dividing line between the two brutal puppet dictatorships, the merry popping sound of teeth being pulled out with pliers generally preceded the slightly louder popping sound of someone being shot in the back of the head with a Colt .45 or a 7.62mm Tokarev.
However, for some reason the North Koreans became restless. Perhaps it was the victory of the Chinese Communists over the American puppet government in Beijing which encouraged them. Perhaps it was the bloody massacres perpetrated by the American puppet government in Seoul. Either way, in 1950 they — especially Kim himself — decided to unify Korea by force. What Stalin thought of this we do not know — certainly he never allowed anything like that in Greece or Iran, but possibly he felt that Korea was less important for the Americans. But the Americans had large numbers of troops in South Korea to help torment and repress the populace, and so the Americans announced that they would defend South Korea, using the United Nations as a fig-leaf (the Russian ambassador was boycotting the Security Council at the time, which is why there was no veto) for the conquest of North Korea, which failed only because the Chinese intervened and kicked the daylights out of the American invaders. Eventually, the front stabilized along the original border, where it stayed for two years while the Americans bombed North Korean flat, killing two million civilians, a genocide unparalleled before Vietnam.
North Korea became a hard-nosed tyranny, whose populace hated almost every other country in the world — the Chinese and the Russians hadn’t helped them enough and the rest of the world had either fought against them or failed to help them, so they decided that they had to help themselves. Putting their country together with virtually no assistance from anybody else, keeping both China and Russia at arm’s length (especially because they were Stalinist when Stalin became unpopular in the Soviet Union) they persisted in the belief that South Korea belonged to them, and endlessly plotted to take it over (of course the South Koreans did the same towards them; both sides were living in a dreamworld).
All this pleasant North Korean dreamworld began to unravel in the 1980s, however, when South Korea began moving away from the hideous tyranny and fascist autocracy which it had suffered under Rhee and Park, and gradually became a sort of guided neoliberal democracy along the lines drafted by the Americans. As South Korea became less repugnant, North Korea looked considerably worse by contrast. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, and North Korea was left out in the cold in the 1990s. South Korea remained violently hostile and acquisitive towards the North (and was also more militarily powerful, being much richer) and was still aligned with the United States and now with Japan, which was growing more aggressive and imperialistic to distract attention from its national bankruptcy. Russia was hostile, China was dubiously sympathetic. Rather than fantasising about taking over the South, the North was now struggling to survive, especially since it could no longer import cheap commodities from the Soviet Union and it lacked its own resources.
The upshot of this was that North Korea dusted off its nuclear weapons plans. In order to survive against an aggressive United States, especially in light of the aggression launched against Iraq, it was obvious that North Korea needed the atomic bomb. It would have to develop its own, however; nobody would supply it with the plans (unlike the comparable plans of Pakistan a decade earlier; Pakistan got technical aid from almost everybody in the West to build its bombs). The Americans speedily got wind of this and began making an immense fuss that North Korea was posing a threat to — to whom? North Korea could only, realistically, threaten South Korea, which was easily defended by the massive American forces present there. Meanwhile, the U.S. obviously threatened the North on the same basis. It was obvious that North Korea’s proposed bomb was intended as a deterrent against American invasion, on the assumption that the North couldn’t rely on the Chinese nuclear umbrella. The U.S. objections made it clear to Pyongyang (and everybody else who was paying attention) that the U.S. wished to reserve the right to conquer North Korea. In which case, North Korea was not simply being paranoid; the Americans were really out to get them.
The reasons why were fairly simple. North Korea was not part of the American system in Asia, and therefore its government had to be changed, by force if necessary. In addition, North Korea had beaten off an American invasion — and every country in the world which manages this has to be punished for it. In addition, it was handy for the Americans to hate North Korea, because it provided a unifying tool for the region — the puppet governments of South Korea and Japan could be ordered to pretend that they were terrified of North Korea, and thus the populace in those countries could be stampeded by fear of the usual imaginary hobgoblins. (North Korea might have wanted to pose a threat to those countries, but it did not.)
However, in the triumphalist 1990s the Americans tried something slightly different; the Clinton administration undertook to provide the North Korean government with an American nuclear power plant in exchange for the North Koreans giving up their bomb project. This might have worked, insofar as it might have been possible to persuade the North Koreans that they were not under threat — provided, of course, that they really were not under threat. We shall never know, because the Americans stalled and made excuses, and finally after Bush took over, the promise of the plant was withdrawn and, of course, the North Koreans reinstated their nuclear weapon project.
The Bush administration went a little further. Bush’s speechwriter, Matthew Frum, came up with the phrase “Axis of Evil”, referring to the three countries at the top of the American hate parade, these being Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Once you have defined the country you have just broken an agreement with as a bottomless pit of evil, you are going to have some trouble in persuading it to behave amiably towards you. It is always a good idea to take that trouble, if you want a peaceful world, but the Bush administration was engaged in troubling the planet in the hope of somehow ruling it, and one of the countries most troubled was, understandably, North Korea. The Bush administration was particularly interested in building anti-missile missiles to shoot down the supposed threat from North Korea, and eventually deployed some ineffectual fireworks in Alaska. (The North Koreans had yet to demonstrate that they had either a bomb to launch or a missile to launch it with, but then, the Bush administration’s anti-missile missiles probably didn’t work either.)
But all this brinkmanship became meaningless when the North Koreans detonated their first bomb. It wasn’t a very successful test — it was a plutonium bomb, which requires very effective explosive compression of the core of the bomb, and it seems to have only partly gone off, which caused much ribald jeering from the Americans. (The North Koreans also probably didn’t have enough plutonium to do better.) However, an explosion of only a tenth of a kiloton would be enough to send a plume of radioactive fallout all over an American city; if such a bomb went off in Los Angeles it would probably kill thousands. And, of course, the North Koreans might make a bigger, better bomb next time. So now North Korea had its deterrent, and presumably was safe from American attack.
When Bush slithered away into the underbrush and Obama came in to make the world safe for democracy, one of Obama’s promises was that he would talk to the country’s opponents, unlike Bush. As with most of Obama’s promises, this slithered off to join Bush the moment Obama was elected; his principal policy regarding North Korea has been to shout increasingly silly abuse in the general direction of Pyongyang and to try to bully South Korea and Japan into joining in the screamfest, while China sits back and rolls its eyes wearily. All this accomplishes approximately nothing other than annoying an unstable, badly-ruled nuclear-armed country whose paranoia is looking increasingly thoroughly justified. (Another of Obama’s hobbies is annoying a stable, well-ruled country which doesn’t have nuclear weapons, namely Iran; everybody has to have a hobby, but it’s a pity that Obama couldn’t stick to his golf.)
The latest stupefying imbecility has been the North Korean decision to try to launch a satellite (their second). They announced that they were doing to launch it on the hundredth anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birth. Suddenly, the Americans began dirtying their panties in all directions, crying out that this was a test of a ballistic missile. Obviously, a satellite launcher can be used as an ICBM — most American satellites are launched by either the Atlas or the Titan, both of which started out as missiles — and the Russian Soyuz launcher was also the first Soviet ICBM.
However, the only possible North Korean use for an ICBM would be as a deterrent. If they stick a plutonium bomb on a missile and fire it at America, the Americans will turn North Korea into a plain of shiny glass. In contrast, if the consequence of America dropping a bomb on Pyongyang might be a North Korean nuke on Seattle, the American government would probably think twice about that. So the North Koreans need the capacity to respond to an American nuclear attack, in order to deter it. This means that the North Koreans need missiles which can be launched very swiftly, within a few minutes of deciding to launch — because if it takes longer, the Americans could nuke the North Korean missiles and destroy them.
There are two ways of doing that. One way is to use a solid-propellant missile, rather like a scaled-up version of an artillery multiple rocket launcher. Unfortunately, this requires a very, very energetic fuel, and a very, very smooth-burning fuel, and ideally some way of extinguishing the solid rocket flame, because in the absence of these things, the rocket will either fail or miss its target. Although the Americans developed these capacities in the late 1950s, most other countries have a lot of trouble — the USSR never managed an effective solid ICBM. What they did instead was use storable liquid missiles — rather like space rockets, but using fuels which could sit around inside the missile for weeks or months. Unfortunately, while fuel is easy to find, oxidants — the things that make the fuel burn — are trickier. The commonest such oxidant is red fuming nitric acid, which, as its name suggests, has the habit of melting the missile into a puddle if it leaks out. This is usually used with hydrazine as a fuel, conveniently, because they ignite on contact, but hydrazine is also quite corrosive. This is incredibly dangerous to use, which is why the Soviet navy lost several missile submarines when the missile fuel tanks leaked.
But it seems that the North Korean rocket wasn’t this at all. It was your common-or-garden “cryogenic” rocket, with liquid oxygen as the oxidiser. This is almost certainly the case, because it took hours for the rocket to be fuelled (which is usually a sign that great care has to be taken because at the very low temperatures of liquid oxygen, the pipes tend to become brittle — storable liquid can be pumped in at much higher speed). Which means that even if the North Koreans might want to use it as a missile, it isn’t suitable as a deterrent, only for aggression, which in the North Korean case would be suicidal.
The American government claimed that this was a missile test disguised as a satellite launch. This is extraordinarily unlikely, because the North Koreans were firing the rocket in honour of Kim Il-Sung and claimed that it was a satellite launch. If it was a missile test it would have fallen into the Pacific and would have to be written off as a failure — and for the North Koreans to deliberately sabotage a celebration of the anniversary of Kim Il-Sung would be rather like President Obama celebrating July 4th by publicly pissing on the American flag. It isn’t going to happen. So, it was just a satellite launch which went wrong. The Americans, who have satellites and monitoring stations checking out every square metre of North Korea, knew that.
But boy, did they make a fuss with their lies! The South Korean government was persuaded to whimper like a poisoned Labrador. The Japanese squeaked that if the rocket came anywhere near them, they would shoot it down (an illegal act of war, by the way, though one which they probably aren’t capable of). Even the Security Council was persuaded to denounce a country firing a satellite-launching rocket off from their own territory, an event which happens almost every single day. Having got much of the world to bounce around on their head-bones pretending that a satellite launch was the most doubleplusbad thing ever, the Americans then announced that they were cutting off their contributions to UN food aid to North Korea, as punishment.
What we see here is that North Korea is a sensible country ruled by a sensible dictator. Yes, they have the disconcerting habit of unanimously weeping on command when the latest dictator pops his clogs. However, since the inhabitants of Western countries tend to jump like trained dogs at Washington’s command, the North Korean attitude is not so strange. What is strange is the elected dictator of the United States hysterically denouncing a country which his country has been threatening for sixty years, and which is struggling to defend itself, when that country pursues a peaceful project. To be blunt, it looks very much as if the loony is in Washington, not in Pyongyang.