Dr Strangelove in Pyongyang

Tim Savage Peter Hayes
9 October 2006

Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film about nuclear war, Dr Strangelove, was subtitled How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Like Strangelove, North Korea's Kim Jong Il wants his neighbours to love the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK's) bomb. In announcing the nuclear test on 9 October 2006, the (North) Korean Central News Agency argued: "It will contribute to defending the peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the area around it."

Peter Hayes is professor of international relations at Nautilus at RMIT, Melbourne, and directs the Nautilus Institutein San Francisco. He is the author of "The Stalker State: North Korean Proliferation and the End of American Nuclear Hegemony" (Nautilus Institute, October 2006)

Tim Savage is associate at the Nautilus Institute. He formerly coordinated the DPRK Rural Energy Project and edited the daily report of the Northeast Asia Peace and Security Network

Also by Peter Hayes in openDemocracy:

"Nuclear little brother: North Korea's next test" (21 July 2006)

His neighbours, however, do not see it that way. South Korea, Japan, and even China have condemned the nuclear test. All three countries, after all, are within range of North Korea's missiles. The United States says that the world cannot live with a nuclear North Korea.

Few people know that Kim was first a filmmaker, only later a leader of a nuclear-weapons state. Chapter VII of his turgid text on moviemaking reads: "The Art of Directing Cinema Lies with the Director". This may be a bad movie, but there's no doubt that Kim is choreographing this drama.

The demonic genius of the nuclear Doomsday Machine is that it gives your opponent a stake in your survival. As unpalatable as the world may find Kim Jong Il with nuclear weapons, the alternatives are worse. Regime collapse, the long-cherished dream of the hardliners in Washington and Tokyo, poses the prospect of loose nukes ending up in the hands of power-mad generals in the midst of a war in Korea, or being spirited out of the country to find their way into the hands of terrorists.

South Korea, China and Russia all understand this, which is why they won't go along with any United States plans to bring Pyongyang to its knees through financial pressure. Both may retreat from engagement in the short-term, but they will re-engage North Korea in short order.

So how to respond to the nuclear test? Right now, the best response is to do little and say nothing, in order to devalue Kim's bomb. Confrontational actions such as a naval blockade or other military measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations charter would only validate North Korea's claim that it needed a nuclear force to defend itself from the "hostile policy" of the United States.

Moreover, the situation is too dangerous to risk precipitate military action. Almost nothing is known about North Korea's nuclear weapons, including what command and control systems are in place, how they are safeguarded (if at all), and what kind of prospective deployment and operational doctrine will govern their use. No one needs North Korea to be improvising its nuclear strategy in the midst of a crisis on the demilitarised zone (DMZ) where as recently as 7 October, bullets were fired in anger. 

openDemocracy writers examine North Korea's politics:

Kim Kook-Shin, "Don't let a cloud stop the sunshine"
(27 December 2002)

Jasper Becker, "A gulag with nukes: inside North Korea" (19 July 2005)

Hwang Sok-yong, "The ghosts of North and South Korea"
(16 December 2005)

David Wall, "North Korea and the 'six-party talks'" (12 April 2006)

Jane Porter, "Art under control in North Korea" (28 June 2006)

The United States and China should also avoid falling into the "blame game" about who failed to prevent North Korea from testing. The six-party talks are now dead. As the two great powers involved directly with the north, they have to work together to develop a viable strategy to engage North Korea and restart negotiations, possibly in a new tripartite forum. If the United States baulks at engaging North Korea, then China and Russia will simply cut their own deals with Kim Jong-Il in order to restabilise the situation.

Finally, the United States should work to prevent its allies, Japan and South Korea, from building their own nuclear weapons in response. The mere existence of American nuclear weapons is a powerful deterrent to first use by Pyongyang. Redeploying American nuclear weapons in Japan, South Korea, or the surface waters of the western Pacific would add no strategic advantage to America's retaliatory capability.

Japan is the linchpin in this regard. The United States must do everything possible to avoid any prospect of Japanese proliferation outcome that would inflame China and both Koreas alike. Issuing ultimatums or new nuclear threats to Pyongyang invites Kim to turn up the volume and conduct a second test and will not lead to anywhere but confrontation.

While everyone figures out how to respond to Strangelove's latest appearance, this time in Pyongyang, they should recall the US president's admonition from the film:

"Gentlemen, there's no fighting in the war room!"

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