Thomas Sutcliffe: Has North Korea made the world a safer place?

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We're told that North Korea's nuclear test registered 4.2 on the Richter scale as measured by the US Geological Survey. Small earthquake, nobody - so far as we know - dead. But according to the international media's informal seismographic, the tremor was far greater, setting off all kinds of global diplomatic aftershocks. Teacups rattled in Beijing, plaster came off the ceiling in Washington and in Tokyo tiles slipped off the roof and shattered.

What's more, although the North Koreans announced that no radiation had leaked from their coal mine, there was a huge fallout of flustered response, as various governments groped for a language that might mask their own unnerving lack of palatable options.

The North Korean action had been "irresponsible", said Tony Blair, but obviously didn't have the space to explain the "responsible" nature of deciding to replace our own Trident missile system without a Parliamentary vote.

The Indian government announced that the test highlighted "the dangers of clandestine proliferation", impressively unabashed by its own history of clandestine weapons acquisition. And Washington announced that it was a "test for the UN", without mentioning the fact that its own steady undermining of the institution had effectively guaranteed that the UN won't be able to pass it.

I found myself thinking about deterrence in its classic Cold War form - a strategic concept of positively theological complexity, once hotly debated by technocratic schoolmen and military philosophers but recently superseded by notions of asymmetric warfare and the threat of terrorism. We are often told that we have deterrence to thank for 50 years of European peace, so if the theory is transferable, then logically the world just became a safer place.

There are caveats, inevitably. We will have to wait for Vietnam and Japan and South Korea to go nuclear too, before the protective balance of destructive capability is restored. And since North Korea is like Jonestown on a national scale - a paranoid society governed through a deranged cult of personality - it is possible that the necessary equilibrium of craziness and fearful sanity will never be reached. They have their poison-laced cyanide now and, should they feel impelled to drink it, their near neighbours will be sure to get a dose whether they want to or not.

On the other hand, if we are to argue to North Korea that the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons is a fallacy - that their nukes are a dangerous provocation to military action rather than an effective guarantee that it won't now take place - then you might think that the arguments for our own continued possession of nuclear weapons are seriously weakened too.

But the truth is that the syllogism isn't reversible - because while the theory of deterrence has some claims to work against states that already possess nuclear weapons, it has one large flaw. It is a very powerful incentive to those who don't already have nuclear weapons to acquire them too. Or to lie about the fact that they have them.

We still don't know whether Pyongyang's big bang was nuclear - or whether they simply let off a thousand tons of conventional explosive to keep the rest of the world on edge. What we do know is that they have effectively muscled their way into the select club of those for whom nuclear deterrence now bites (a club where the unanimous blackballing of the existing members has no effect whatsoever - indeed simply confirms your membership).

It is - from pretty much any perspective - very bad news, but it is worth remembering - as the moral bluster continues from China and Britain and the United States - that it has its origin not in a repudiation of our values but an imitation of them.

Just pull yourself together, lads

One of Sigmund Freud's wisest remarks was that "the aim of psychoanalysis is to relieve people of their neurotic unhappiness so that they can be normally unhappy". I fear for the future of "normal unhappiness", though, given the readiness with which people now identify themselves as "clinically depressed". Both David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell have recently done it, in the interests of openness and greater public understanding. But since Blunkett had just experienced the humiliating collapse of his private and professional life, would there not have been something psychologically wrong with him if he hadn't felt depressed? And wouldn't Campbell have missed more than one media briefing in the grip of a clinical depression? What they were, surely, was predictably wretched and predictably exhausted - deserving of sympathy, no doubt, but victims of their career choices rather than the arbitrary cruelties of disease.

* I cackled ruefully when I woke to hear a Today programme report on the deficiencies of rural postal services. Here in Crouch End, a mere five miles from the centre of London and less than half a mile from our local sorting office, my sole delivery arrives some time after midday. To stand a chance of getting anything here earlier the sender has to pay between 12 and 27 times the price of a first-class stamp. If I miss the postman for any reason, the letter disappears back into the system with no guarantee that it can be retrieved in less than 48 hours. It's true that it is relatively easy for me to visit the sorting office so that I can then deliver my post to myself - but in most other respects rural citizens should feel reassured. As far as the Royal Mail is concerned, we're all entitled to the same service - an increasingly lousy one.

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