Nuclear Orientalism

The North Korean bomb may be an uncomfortable fact of life, but so too is the US bomb, notes Barakawi.

Nuke Free World, U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber drops conventional weapons
It is the US which has a consistent pattern of threatening the use - including first use - of nuclear weapons [AP]

Once again, the Crazy Emperor of the Hermit Kingdom – North Korea – is threatening nuclear war. Or so the media would have us believe. 

The BBC and other news outlets have taken to publishing maps with concentric rings donating the speculative ranges of North Korea’s creaky missile systems. One never tested missile might possibly reach Alaska and do for Sarah Palin and the polar bears. 

The basic idea purveyed by the media and by US spokespersons is that Oriental despotisms -as Iran and North Korea are regularly portrayed – cannot possibly be trusted with nuclear weapons. 

Accordingly, US policy, to which the UN and much of the world have subscribed, is that it will “never accept” an Iranian or North Korean bomb. While rational people would never use a nuclear weapon except in circumstances in which it was rational to do so, unbalanced, crazy types might decide to unleash their nuclear arsenals, or turn them over to terrorists, or what not. 

It would seem that only rational Western nations like the US can be trusted with nukes. 

Images of Mad Mullahs and Asiatic Despots aside, there are obvious reasons why Iran and North Korea would want nuclear weapons. Most significantly, a nuclear weapon is a guarantee that they will not suffer the same fate as Iraq in 2003. One of the only times it is rational and credible to make nuclear threats is in a situation of existential crisis – when regime survival is at stake. 

For this reason, no one invades or pushes too far a power armed with nuclear weapons. 

Were Iran or North Korea to use a nuclear weapon in any other circumstance, they would face obliteration. Since nuclear weapons can be traced to their origin, it would be suicidal for these countries to provide weapons to terrorist groups. Such groups do not have a country to lose, unlike the leaderships of Iran and North Korea. 

So if Iran and North Korea turn out to have rational reasons for pursuing nuclear weapons, and are likely to be governed by the same realities of nuclear deterrence that constrained the US and the Soviet Union in the Cold War, what about the rationality of US policy? 

For one, for the US to say it will “never accept” what is already a reality is an absurdity: North Korea already has the bomb. It must now be treated as a nuclear power.

 US warns North Korea against missile launch

More broadly, the recent history of US foreign policy is not exactly a testament to rationality. In response to a terrorist attack which killed nearly 3,000 of its citizens, the US invaded two countries, starting wars that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Ten years later, it has lost both of those wars and broken its budget. 

Luckily, not every country that suffers from terrorism reacts with such deadly and self-defeating spasms of revenge and blood lust. 

North Korea has in living memory suffered from the wanton destructiveness of US policy. This is a fact which must be remembered in the face of media images of North Korea’s supposedly irrational militarism and aggressiveness. 

Over the three years of the Korean War, in the words of General Curtis LeMay, the US Air Force “burned down every town in North and South Korea”. The US used 12,000 pound “Tarzan” bombs until there were no more targets for them, in addition to thousands upon thousands of bombing sorties. Thousand pound napalm bombs were dropped from B-29s to “wipe out all life” in tactical localities. Towards the end of the war, the US bombed North Korea’s dams. One resulting flood “scooped clean” 27 miles of river valley. 

Moreover, it is the US which has made repeated nuclear threats against North Korea, despite the fact that North Korea has never posed a serious threat to the US. The use of nuclear weapons was considered several times during the Korean War, both tactical and strategic. In April 1951, B-29s with nuclear weapons were deployed to Guam, ready for use if China escalated its conventional involvement in the war. Later in the war, lone B-29s simulated nuclear attack runs on Pyongyang. Over the course of the war, a million North Korean civilians were killed by US, UN and South Korean forces. 

This history offers some perspective on the recent crisis, which began not with North Korean threats but with US and South Korean war games and manoeuvres. These included practice sorties by two nuclear capable B-2 stealth bombers sent over South Korea, loudly announced in the media so that the point would not be lost on North Korea’s leaders. 

North Korea responded with bombast, including the incredible notion that it was preparing an amphibious invasion of the US. Guam, still a base for US nuclear bombers, was “threatened” by North Korea’s jury-rigged missiles. In turn, the US deployed its equally ineffective but much more expensive THAAD missile defence system to Guam. 

One wonders what is more laughable: the idea that North Korea could hit a speck in the Pacific like Guam or that the boondoggle offspring of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars might actually work. 

What is not laughable is the fact that it is the US which has a consistent pattern of threatening the use – including first use – of nuclear weapons. No one is in doubt that US nuclear weapons actually work, and the US remains the only power ever to have used them in anger. Notably, it used them in a situation in which it was itself no longer threatened. 

The North Korean bomb may be an uncomfortable fact of life. But so too is the US bomb. And none of us should make any easy assumptions about the rationality of the leadership of either country, however. 

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.