August 29, 1949 — Soviet Union. October 16, 1964 — People’s Republic of China. October 7, 2006, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. Three dates. Three first-time nuclear tests by three enemies (at their respective times) of Washington. All three tests were preceded by threats from that same Washington that warned of dire consequences for the governments that would dare to ignore those threats. In their wake, the tests were condemned by Washington and its allies. Then, the world moved on, in the first two cases. In retrospect, this was probably because the Soviet Union presented a counterweight to Washington’s swaggering.
Meanwhile, four other countries — Britain, France, India, and Pakistan — officially joined the nuclear club, with another, Israel, unofficially a member. There was no alarm registered in Washington at Britain’s application for membership and very little at France’s. India and Pakistan provoked a bit of a shock, but nothing truly substantial changed in their relationship with the US. The response from other nations not considered friends of Washington was less positive. At the same time, they couldn’t help but notice that a nuclear enemy of Washington was much less likely to be attacked than a non-nuclear one.
Which brings us back to Pyongyang. Unlike at the time of the Chinese test in 1964, there is no other superpower to prevent Washington from doing something provocative and stupid. Back then, President Johnson released a statement that essentially minimized the importance of China’s test and called for continuing work towards disarmament. Of course, he also said that the US would always have a larger nuclear arsenal. In reaction to northern Korea’s tests, unofficial statements in the media from various unnamed officials are hinting that the US plans include stopping every northern Korean ship and boarding it for inspection — essentially a blockade of Pyongyang’s harbors. In addition, Washington will probably press for further sanctions against the country. Whether or not such sanctions will get the full agreement of the UN Security Council is unknown. Of course, the threat of military action always looms in the background. If such a threat is discussed, one can be pretty certain that it would meet with little opposition from any politician in Washington. After all, it was Bill Clinton who almost went to war with Pyongyang back in 1993 when Pyongyang’s leadership threatened to reprocess its reactors’ plutonium rods, thereby making weapons-grade fuel.
In fact, it was the failure of Washington to follow through on its end of the deal brokered by Clinton’s administration — a deal that would have provided northern Korea with light-water reactors capable of making energy but not weapons — that some say led to the impasse between the two capitals. However, it should be noted that Pyongyang had frozen the reactor where yesterday’s test fuel came from after 1994 under the terms agreed to by Washington and Pyongyang. Indeed, it was only after George Bush included Pyongyang in his so-called axis of evil that the reactor was started up again and the process that led to the nuclear test restarted.
One can be certain that there are those in Washington’s circles of power that welcome Pyongyang’s test. In their minds. the very fact of its occurrence means that they no longer have to pretend that there is a diplomatic route to resolving the Korean situation. Not that this administration really understands the meaning of diplomacy anyhow, but this test means they don’t even have to pretend. Add to this the fact that the Japanese government has been moving towards a stance that is considerably more militaristic than at any time since the end of World War Two, and the potential for some kind of military ugliness looms ominously in the background.
Besides the very real threat of some kind of military action that could escalate into a full-scale war, the other distressing aspect of the entire affair is that it could most likely have been prevented. If Washington had agreed to sit down with Pyongyang and hold head-to-head talks that included the signing of a peace treaty between the two nations, the world would not find itself in today’s situation. Yet, for some reason known only to a relative few, Washington has refused to sign such a treaty (or even hold head-to-head talks), even though military hostilities ended over fifty years ago. Consequently, we find ourselves in another contrived situation that could lead to another pointless war. Although one can hope that saner heads prevail, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan are reminders that the trend is in the opposite direction.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch‘s new collection on music, art and sex: Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at <email@example.com>.