Toward Nuclear Abolition: North Korea Puts Non-Proliferation to the Test


Shortly after North Korea’s October 9 nuclear weapons test, Condoleeza Rice issued a thinly veiled threat of nuclear assault against the latest member of the Mushroom Club.  “The United States has the will and the capability,” she declared during an October 18 visit to Tokyo, “to meet the full range — and I underscore full range — of its deterrent and security commitments to Japan.”

In doing so, Rice was merely continuing the pattern that has characterized Washington-Pyongyang relations for nearly six decades.  The United States has threatened to use nuclear weapons against North Korea at least seven times since 1950.  It maintained scores of “tactical” nuclear weapons on alert in South Korea from 1958 to 1991.  It recently authorized the potential pre-emptive use of nukes against both North Korea and Iran via its CONPLAN-8022.

This pattern is largely why North Korea is developing a nuclear weapons arsenal.  While there is much to criticize and oppose regarding Pyongyang’s squalid human rights record, the fact remains that its nuclear ambitions are, to a significant extent, a direct response to living under constant threat of nuclear annihilation by the United States.

The pattern also reflects why the power to make the world safe from nuclear danger rests largely with peace activists in the United States. If the source of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is U.S. nuclear imperialism - as has been the case with regard to so many other countries - then the primary way to halt North Korean nuclear proliferation is for a powerful nuclear abolition movement to re-emerge in the empire’s Achilles heel: here at home.  Fortunately, that Achilles heel has rarely been more vulnerable.

What ‘Deterrence’?

In the U.S. public’s mind, the role nuclear weapons play in foreign policy has always been entangled in a web of mystification.  Because so little relevant background information on the issue is widely available, the U.S. public’s nuclear literacy - its ability to interpret global events related to nuclear weapons - is severely impaired.

Contrary to the myth that nukes serve mainly as “deterrence,” every U.S. presidential administration since Truman’s has utilized them in essentially the same way: as tools of empire-building, coercion, and horrific violence. The United States has threatened to use nuclear weapons against other countries more than 30 times since the end of World War II, far more than any other nation.

In 1946, for example, Harry Truman threatened to drop a “superbomb” on the Soviet Union if it did not withdraw from the provinces of Kurdistan and Azerbaijan in northern Iran. The Soviets soon withdrew - and then re-doubled their efforts to manufacture nukes of their own.

On another occasion, in 1969, President Richard Nixon was on the verge of ordering a long-planned nuclear strike on northern Vietnam.  At the last minute, Nixon thought better of the idea.  The reason? Growing grassroots mobilization against the war.  Nixon wrote in his memoirs, “I knew… that after all the protests and the [Vietnam] Moratorium [marches], American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war… I knew for sure my [nuclear] ultimatum failed.”

Despite notable reductions in the U.S, and Russian nuclear stockpiles after the end of the Cold War, the core of U.S. nuclear policy remained unchanged.  In 1997, President Bill Clinton declared, in the classified Presidential Decision Directive 60, that nuclear weapons will remain the “cornerstone” of U.S. “national security” for the “indefinite future.”  In the same directive, he recommitted the United States to a policy of threatened first use of nukes.  In 2001, the Bush administration moved this policy forward via its Nuclear Posture Review, which specifically named seven countries - Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Russia, China, and North Korea — as potential targets of U.S. “pre-emptive” nuclear strikes.

University of Chicago history professor Bruce Cumings has referred to North Korea as “the world’s most complete garrison state,” a development he traces to the Korean War.  From 1950 to 1953, the United States carpet-bombed the country with everything from napalm to 12,000-pound “Tarzan” bombs, reducing nearly all its infrastructure to rubble and forcing most North Korean men, women and children to seek refuge for months at a time in caves and tunnels.  Ultimately, this so-called “limited war” claimed the lives of between 2.5 and 4 million Koreans - out of a total population of 10 million.  The United States has yet to declare the war officially over.

According to Cumings, the Korean War is the defining event of modern North Korea.  Only in this context is it possible to understand the country’s rigid, repressive social structure, in which the trauma engendered by the war is deeply embedded.  Only in the context of knowing the role nuclear weapons played in the war, furthermore, is it possible to understand that society’s relationship to nukes in particular.

On multiple occasions during the Korean War, the United States was on the verge of  using nukes to strike a “decisive” blow against North Korea.  In May 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower unequivocally authorized the following proposal by General Oma Bradley: “It is the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the necessary air, naval, and ground operations, including the extensive strategic and tactical use of atomic bombs, be undertaken, so as to obtain maximum surprise and maximum impact on the enemy, both militarily and psychologically.”  The plan was about to be executed when a ceasefire was reached only weeks later.

Five years later, the United States stationed the first of what would become 600 “tactical” nuclear weapons in South Korea.  Although these were removed following the end of the Cold War, U.S. nuclear weapons (such as cruise missiles) based on ships can still be fired into North Korea within minutes.

In 1987, it is generally believed, North Korea began diverting plutonium-containing wastes from its graphite-nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, toward nuclear weapons production.  From Pyongyan’s perspective, this effort was entirely justified, given the state of nuclear terror in which North Korea has constantly lived.

By 1994, the United States was on the verge of leveling a “pre-emptive” strike against the Yongbyon site, in what likely would have inaugurated another full-scale war in the Korean Peninsula.  Former President Jimmy Carter intervened at the 11th hour, successfully negotiating what became known as the “Agreed Framework.”  Under the terms of the agreement, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear reactor program in exchange for two electricity-generating light-water reactors to be built by 2003, and an interim annual supply of 3.3 million barrels of fuel oil.  The two countries also agreed to “move toward full normalization of political and economic relations,” while the United States was to provide “formal assurances to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”

Despite delays in the construction of the light-water reactors, U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and North Korea’s Marshall Jo Myong Rok nearly negotiated full implementation of each of the provisions in 2000.  When the Bush administration came to power, it immediately swept away the provisions, explicitly refused to continue the existing one-on-one negotiations, and son labeled North Korea a member of the “Axis of Evil.”

In 2003, a reporter from the New York Times asked John Bolton, then under-secretary of state for arms control and international security, what the Bush policy toward Korea was.  Bolton, wrote the reporter, “strode over to a bookshelf, pulled off a volume and slapped it on the table.  It was called The End of North Korea, and was by an American Enterprise Institute colleague.  ‘That,’ he said, ‘is our policy.’”  Numerous statements by other administration officials, including President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, have been similarly provocative.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Il had already gotten the message.

“The Iraqi war teaches a lesson,” he declared, “that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent force.”

The immediate danger of North Korea’s nuclear weapon test is not that the country might soon use a nuke against another country.  The explosive yield of the test was less than one kiloton.  (The Hiroshima bomb, by contrast, was 15 kilotons.) Moreover, the quality of Pyongyang’s delivery systems for whatever warheads it may possess its questionable at best.  In a sense, the test merely provided the latest bargaining chip in the country’s efforts to normalize relations with the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

But the test has also significantly affected the political climate in eastern Asia — most notably in Japan.  That country already has hundreds of tons of weapons-grade plutonium and high-caliber delivery systems, meaning it could manufacture nuclear weapons within a matter of weeks, given the political will. Notably, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is — in the words of nuclear disarmament specialist Joseph Gerson — “a diehard nationalist who advocates that Japan become a nuclear weapons state with a first-strike policy.” If it does so, a nuclear arms race with China, perhaps also involving other Asian Pacific countries, would likely follow.

In short, North Korea’s test has helped push us to where we are today: closer to the nuclear precipice, perhaps, than at any other time since the darkest days of the Cold War.

New U.S. Nukes

“We are on the verge of an exciting time,” the top U.S. nuclear weapons executive, Linton Brooks, declared this past February.  Brooks chairs the National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy.

During the 1990s, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in northern California received billions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Energy to begin research and design on a new generation of nukes.  In 1996, Los Alamos even rolled out a new type of warhead, the B61-11 — without congressional approval. All that work took place under the deceptively named “Stockpile Stewardship Program.”

The Department of Energy, which oversees the stockpile program, is now in the process of phasing it out in favor of the equally euphemistically named Reliable Replacement Warhead program.  Under the auspices of the new program, the United States plans to upgrade every nuclear weapon in its arsenal.  It is spending more than $6 billion a year to do so — more than half again as much as it spent on average during the Cold War, adjusted for inflation.

Brooks’ administration has requested that the new weapons be more “flexible and responsive” so that they may better serve future U.S. nuclear weapons “missions.”  The Los Angeles laboratory is scheduled to begin manufacturing the central component for these new weapons, the plutonium pit, in 2008.

The subtext of the massive U.S. investments in new nuclear weaponry is that the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is currently more vulnerable than at any time in recent memory.

The primary reason the Los Alamos lab has been designated as the country’s new plutonium pit production plant is that it is the only facility in the country equipped with the infrastructure to do the job.  Put another way, the U.S. government’s plan to develop its next generation of nuclear weapons depends entirely on the ability of Los Alamos to produce plutonium pits.

Los Alamos is struggling mightily to prepare itself for the task.  The post-Cold War world is producing increasingly few young scientists interested in working on nuclear weapons.  Resistance among lab employees to this new mission is significant.  Resistance in the communities surrounding the lab — a factor that has politically defeated plutonium pit production proposals there in the past — might prove to be even more significant.

If the government fails in its effort to build the new generation of nuclear weapons it envisions, it would deal the U.S. nuclear enterprise as a whole a major setback.  Any setback to the U.S. nuclear enterprise, moreover, is a significant step toward nuclear non-proliferation and, ultimately, abolition.

Meanwhile, interest in nuclear disarmament activism is starting to revive.  A new generation of nuclear abolitionists has started to emerge, most notably through a national network called Think Outside the Bomb (see article in this issue of WIN). Given the strategic opportunities available to it, this relatively small but critical movement is poised to make a meaningful difference where it matters the most; in the belly of the beast, the United States.

If the North Korea nuclear weapons tests illustrate nothing else, let it be this: Nuclear disarmament needs to begin in the United States, not in North Korea — and it is, therefore, possible.