Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dr. Derangelove, Or How I Continue Worrying Because These Guys Still Love the Bomb

Boys love toys, and among the toys boys love are weapons.  Swords, bows, spears, guns, missiles.  We love to imagine possessing these powerful tools, imagine using them, playing war.  We love games that let us play out the possibilities of war, of set piece battles, outsmarting our opponent.  We fantasize about different ways to win, what are acceptable losses, and how we can make these possibilities come to pass without "losing."  In that vein, many boys love nuclear weapons, if, for any reasons, because they are the biggest weapons there are, and the stakes are higher than ever, and the play is always for keeps.

Last week the inestimable nation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, also known as The Hermit Kingdom and The Crazy Northern Half of Korea, detonated its second nuclear device. Happily, for the moment, it appears that the device in question was the nuclear weapon equivalent of a Fourth of July sparkler, but this is a disquieting development for the Korean Peninsula, and North East Asia, not to mention the world at large.

North Korea is one of the poorest nations in the world, and it is likely that up to 2 million of her citizens starved to death during the late 90's.  Yet her leadership, namely the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, has his ship of state set at full speed ahead towards a nuclear arsenal.  

Kim is a special individual, highly intelligent, yet bizarre to the extreme.  He is the poster boy for the phrase 'cult of personality' and it is not out of bounds to suggest that when he shuffles off this mortal coil, the nation itself will simply collapse due to lack of recognizable leadership.

He is also, in my opinion, a rather depraved person who, if he has read the book, has used Orwell's 1984 as a guidebook and instruction manual.  The inhumanity described in the stories of those who have escaped this veritable piece of Hell on Earth, even if only a tenth true, are truly stomach churning.

Therefore, we here at the Witch Hunt are more discomfited than usual when it has come to pass that a person with little to lose, a lot to prove, and who places little value on human life has come ever closer to perfecting the perfect machine for exterminating his fellow man, at least since small pox.  And it doesn't help that Kim has ratcheted up his normal penchant for brinkmanship and not only detonated his small nuclear weapon, but has also fired off a half dozen short range missiles as well.

A critical question is 'What is Kim Jong-il's endgame?'  But the obvious answers, such as to sell either a nuclear weapon or technology, doesn't satisfy my sensibilities.  As poor as North Korea is, which is so poor they do not keep the lights on in the capital Pyongyang overnight, the few millions they would fetch from a fellow rogue nation or non-governmental organization I don't see as being worthwhile.  Consider the time and expense, which includes building nuclear reactors for the purpose of creating the plutonium for a fission bomb, and then add to the equation that selling one bomb means an arsenal depletion of 20% or more.  

This is probably more about Kim burnishing his personality cult within and without his insular nation. Kim has begun to age, and age rapidly.  He has not named a successor.  He also has very distinct personality defects, including being insecure with a fragile self esteem most likely buttressed by a not so healthy paranoia.  You can see it in his comical bouffant hairdo and elevator shoes.  What I am getting at, and not to put too fine a point on it, is that it has finally occurred to me that maybe this guy wants to go out Waco style.

It is possible that we have arrived at a tipping point.  Nothing, nothing, nothing has worked.  Sunshine policy with her estranged sister state, South Korea.  Six Party Talks.  Sanctions on top of sanctions.  

Now, South Korea has decided to officially join the Proliferation Security Initiative, to which North Korea has responded would be seen as "a declaration of undisguised confrontation and a declaration of war."  Japan has publicly wondered whether she will have to amended her constitution to take a more hawkish footing, pointing out that they are the only nation to withstand a nuclear attack.  And the United States has stated we are considering halting and inspecting North Korean shipping for nuclear weapons and missile parts, to which North Korea said she was "fully ready for battle."

Kim and his regime has always been given to heavy rhetoric, but this seems much more than usual.  Defense Secretary Gates stated that the USA will not accept a nuclear armed North Korea, and has publicly stated we are prepared to defend our regional allies.  Whoa.

It looks like right now even China and Russia are less than thrilled, and might actually try something constructive.  I am not holding my breath.

Now what?

Whatever it is, the United States, nay, the world, cannot permit this self destructive regime to possess a nuclear arsenal.  Do we go to war?  Do we put the odious "Bush Doctrine" in motion?  I don't know.

To tell you the truth, I have to confess that I have indulged in the fantasy using 5 or 6 of our largest bombs, I'm talking about 10+ megatons in yield, and put them in a ring around Kim's test site.  Let him see the pillar of fire he wants so badly.  

But we all know that is not the answer.  And unfortunately, no one knows what the answer might be.  We can only hope we don't get it wrong.

One thing we should not do is to conflate this massive crisis with our other "rogue" nation problem, Iran.  Whatever we do, we should not chase Iran into North Korea's arms, literally and figuratively.  It was a tremendous error for W. to have conflated Iran, Iraq and North Korea into his overly simple yet catchy "Axis of Evil."  And Iran is a nation lightyears ahead of North Korea in every way, and in my opinion is poised to become a real and possibly constructive player on the world stage.  We should engage with it, as isolation from United States influence, as with Cuba, has simply not worked.

That being said, enter into the fray John R. Bolton, late U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.  In his Op-Ed piece recently published in the New York Times on May 26, 2009, Mr. Bolton myopically decried the Obama Administration's arms control overtures to Russia, opining that such deals inure solely to the advantage of Russia, and thusly we were losing the arms race.  He also complained that the Obama Administration was giving up on the strategically destabilizing, still pie in the sky missile defense program, notwithstanding it has been a gigantic failure of a boondoggle that couldn't hit its target even when we told it where it was going.  He then continued with criticism for the Administration's efforts to reenact the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was rejected in 1999, which he pointed out was the first treaty to fail on the Senate floor since the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War in 1918.  It is interesting to note that it was Republican Party controlled Senate in both 1918 and 1999, and that the failure of the USA to enter the Treaty of Versailles was a contributing cause of the Second World War.  Just saying.

The querulous Mr. Bolton apparently doesn't see the need for the United States to lead the world in arms reduction, so he doesn't recognize the utility of being party to treaties aimed at reducing nuclear arms and stopping their proliferation.  Such efforts in the past, done earnestly, might have saved us from the knife's edge we must now walk with the Dear Leader of North Korea.

What Mr. Bolton doesn't get, much like Mr. Kim, is that nuclear weapons are never good, nor are arms races.  That he is still concerned with an arms race is telling, as he is apparently still trapped in his Cold War ways, when concerns about missile gaps and bomber gaps were all the rage. 

Mr. Bolton came of age when there was an unrealistic attitude about nuclear weapons.  In the 1950's and 1960's we made all sorts of atomic weapons, from anti-nuclear weapons nuclear weapons, to depth charges, air to air missiles, artillery shells, mortars, and even contemplated hand grenades and bazooka rockets.  The science fiction of the time blithely spoke in the past tense about atomic wars as if such things were expected to happen and were survivable.

Frankly, it was best said by J. Robert Oppenheimer when he quoted the Bhagavad Gita: "If the radiance of a thousand  suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.  Now I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds."  Bear in mind that this is when he witnessed the first nuclear explosion ever, the test of the plutonium bomb that would be known as Fatman, and eventually dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.  

Fatman had a yield of about 20 kT, or 20,000 tons of TNT, and instantly killed about 40,000 people.  Today, the average W78 warhead atop the average Minuteman III ICBM is 375 kT, and it has two roommates, and they can reach almost anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere.  We have about 1,500 of these missiles.  That's in addition to the 10,000 other nuclear warheads we deploy, including the 3,000 475 kT warheads arming the Navy's Trident missiles in our Ohio Class ballistic missile submarines.

This is not to say we should volunteer to disarm ourselves in this dangerous world.  In a way, our arsenal and its counterpart in Russia have kept a peace, of sorts.  They have probably prevented another nuclear weapon from being detonated in anger.  But the dynamic of unreasonable nuclear buildup has much more downside.  Firstly, setting the bar so high probably allowed more internecine and proxy wars, as neither side would dare raise the stakes to the nuclear level.  It has also been a complete waste of time, resources, and scientific and engineering know-how.  And it has saddled the future generations, no longer constrained by a battle between competing economic philosophies, with the problem of what to do with and how to dispose of, these awful weapons in a world with upwards of ten nuclear powers.

But that nuclear weapons are awful; that they do not strengthen but shackle those who possess them; that they are a waste of time and energy; that there is not any use for them or any strategic arms race, is as lost on Mr. Bolton and his ilk, just as it is lost on Kim Jong-il, [though I will grant Mr. Kim arrived at his conclusions for more selfish reasons].  They are still boys playing at their imaginary games of strategy and chance, heedless of the consequences.  Neither has, to my knowledge, tasted warfare firsthand.  But they, like many of us, myself included, indulge themselves in fantasies of gaming out the unthinkable.  There is nothing wrong with it, so long as when you know that it is really just a game and a fantasy.



  1. 1984 is my favorite book of all time. Hands down.

    And it was required reading at my high school for sophomores :) along with farenheight 451 and some other odd things.

  2. 1984 is one of my favorite books of all time, only beat out by Tolkien and Herbert, if only for the escapism.

    But I will read 1984 to my children, just so they have a proper fear of their government.

    Thanks for the comment.