Thursday, February 10, 2005

I Lied

The UK Times reports egg on everyone's face in the wake of North Korea's announcement that it has nuclear weapons.

The political, as distinct from military, significance of North Korea’s move is considerable. Since being confronted in 2002 with US evidence that it had cheated on a 1994 agreement to suspend all its nuclear weapons programmes, the regime has tried bluff, bluster and partial truths. Both forced admissions and boastful hints emanated from behind closed doors, in official negotiations or in easily retracted hints to reporters. Never before has it made a formal public statement that it possesses nuclear bombs.

The regime of Kim Jong Il may not have intended to make life more difficult for Beijing, but it has surely done so. China’s stance throughout has been that it opposes a nuclear-armed Korean peninsula, but that since it was unclear whether North Korea was even close to the point of developing actual nuclear weapons, the US and Japan should have the patience to fall in with China’s preferred strategy of gradual engagement. Only last week, US envoys were in Beijing to show the Chinese evidence of a North Korean sale of a uranium compound to Libya, and to deliver a letter, from George W. Bush to President Hu Jintao, speaking of “the greatly heightened urgency” of tackling the problem. Now that Pyongyang itself has made that case, Beijing must have been thankful yesterday that the Chinese new year holiday excused it from early comment.

Well how about that? Kim Jong Il actually lied to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Who would have thought it possible? The problem with nuclear weapons nonproliferation agreements today is that they create the temptation to plan contingencies on the basis of intent rather than capability. North Korea is a case in point. The diplomatic approach toward North Korea depended not on its actual capability but on the perception of its capability. Nothing changed over 24 hours except the North Korean press release claiming the possession of nuclear weapons; yet the announcement, not the reality, made all the difference. The reason the fiction, if fiction it was, lasted so long is that so many desperately wanted to believe that WMDs could be contained, so that the music could keep playing and everyone could return to the old games of saving the whales, dancing in ethnic costumes and clapping their hands.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
who have never been happy or good.
-- WH Auden

The alternative is to abandon the "sophisticated" view of a stable international order and understand that we are a planet in crisis; that in some meaningful sense humanity is in a death match with terror.