On October 9th, western newspaper headlines screamed of "nuclear provocation" by North Korea. This followed announcements made by the US Geological Services and South Korea's Intelligence, claiming that, according to seismic measurements, North Korea had just carried out an underground nuclear test.
In fact, to date no-one is absolutely sure that such a test actually took place. A week after the event, on 16 October, the South Korean Office of National Intelligence claimed that analysis of air samples had confirmed that a nuclear test had indeed taken place. But it added that "the explosion yield was less than a kiloton." A closer look at the various measures led the US-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to estimate that the explosion yield, if it was really a nuclear test, was probably around 0.55 kiloton, or less than 5% the explosive power of the bomb dropped by the US Air Force on Hiroshima, in 1945. On the basis of the same figures, various scientists speculated that either it was a failed nuclear test, or else it was a hoax involving the use of large quantities of conventional explosive in order to look like a nuclear test.
By 27 October, 18 days after the event, an official spokesman for the Japanese government was still very cautious. After declaring to the Associated Press agency that "we reached the conclusion that the probability that North Korea conducted a nuclear test is extremely high", he immediately pointed out that having said that, Japanese aircraft had yet to detect the radio-active material which the US and South Korea said they had found and which (they claimed) confirmed the reality of the North Korean nuclear test.
However, the governments of the imperialist "nuclear gang", whose representatives make up the UN Security Council, did not wait for further confirmation before reacting. Within hours of the alleged nuclear test, Bush was embarking on a vociferous denunciation of Pyongyang and calling for an emergency meeting of the Security Council. Within 5 days, on 14 October, resolution 1718 was adopted unanimously, imposing a number of trade and financial sanctions on North Korea.
That there was an element of politicking in Bush blowing the test issue up, out of all proportion, was obvious. What with the US mid-term election threatening to turn into a disaster for the ruling Republican party, the Bush administration was unlikely to miss such an opportunity to bring the "war on terror" to the front of the political scene!
However, the resolution adopted by the Security Council has nothing to do with the almost hysterical tone adopted by the media and so many politicians. Its measured wording and largely symbolic sanctions indicate a carefully calculated response by imperialism determined by objectives which are far more fundamental than Bush's electoral predicament - objectives which have to do, primarily, with the unsteady balance of the imperialist order as it stands today.
The "nuclear gang" and the imperialist order
When it came into force, in 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), was supposed to limit the dissemination of military nuclear technology, stop the transfer of nuclear weapons between countries and, ultimately, aim at nuclear disarmament. Initially, only 3 of the five existing nuclear powers signed up to it - the US, Britain and the Soviet Union - together with 59 other non-nuclear countries.
Of course, all the talk about disarmament and non-proliferation involved in this Treaty was merely a thin cover for the determination of the world's major powers to retain a monopoly over nuclear weapons.
Despite their containment policy towards the Soviet Union, the main imperialist powers, especially the US, had no option but to get the USSR onboard, since it was the world's second largest player in the game. And the leaders of the Soviet bureaucracy were only too willing to accept this breach in their political isolation. But both sides shared the same interest, to ensure that the military power associated with nuclear weapons remained in the hands of a chosen few, in their respective spheres of influence.
Among the states which came out of the collapse of the USSR, Russia was the only one to retain nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, in 1992, the other two remaining known nuclear powers - China and France - signed up to the NPT, while the total number of non-nuclear countries in the NPT rose to 183.
From then onwards, the focus of the NPT, with the assistance of various related agencies such as the UN-based International Atomic Energy Agency, was increasingly extended to include any form of non-conventional weapons - the ill-famed "WMDs" of the last decade - as well as ballistic missiles and suchlike. And under the pretext that the technological frontier between a civilian nuclear programme and a military one, was virtually impossible to define, it was also extended to cover civilian nuclear programmes.
Not that this prevented numerous breaches of the NPT rules. But most of these breaches, and certainly the most serious ones, were not due to the "rogue states" of Bush's so-called "axis of evil", in which North Korea has long been included. It was first and foremost the US itself, for its continuous development of new nuclear weapons - strictly forbidden under NPT rules - the latest being the (already used) so-called "bunker-busting" bombs designed to destroy anti-nuclear shelters buried deep underground. Another major, long-standing breach has been the transfer of nuclear weapons and carriers, from the US to Britain, such as the Polaris/Trident missile system - again, explicitly illegal under NPT rules, but nevertheless on-going under the fallacious pretext that it is based on a US-British bilateral co-operation agreement, which dates back to 1958, before the NPT came into force.
The real problem for imperialism, of course, is not to make the world a safer place. It is to ensure the stability of its order over the planet and, in particular, to maintain its stranglehold over the world's poor countries. But imperialism does not care about the proliferation of nuclear or other forms of "WMDs", so long as the states which control these weapons are "reliable" from its point of view - i.e. respectful of and committed to, its world order.
The fact that Israel has developed a nuclear programme has been an open secret for many years. Yet has anyone ever seen the US or British representatives at the United Nations banging their fists on the table and demanding that international sanctions should be taken against Tel-Aviv? No, of course not. Yet what would it take for the US to twist Israel's arm into dropping its nuclear ambitions? Not more than threatening to cut its massive military and financial aid to Tel-Aviv. But Washington will not do this, precisely because Israel is one of its client states on which hinges the imperialist order in the Middle East.
No independence from imperialism
When it comes to Third World countries attempting to develop any form of independent nuclear energy, let alone nuclear weapons, the attitude of imperialism has always been one of outright opposition.
Poor countries do not develop nuclear weapons in order to launch an attack on their neighbours - let alone on western countries. They know full well that within hours, they would be reduced to ashes by the enormous military machine of imperialism. Nuclear energy, however, may be a means for them to overcome a lack of natural energy resources and the high cost of imports, while they can see nuclear weapons as a deterrent against unstable neighbours or, even, against a possible imperialist aggression - which is quite a reasonable concern in view of the present western-led wars in the Middle-East.
After all, hasn't every British government for decades justified spending billions of pounds on nuclear weapons, by the need for a deterrent? Why wouldn't poor countries face the same needs? And on what grounds do the members of the "nuclear gang", with their stockpiles of nuclear heads and missiles, dare to deny these countries such a right?
Again, contrary to what the leaders of the "nuclear gang" claim, their systematic opposition has nothing to do with "protecting world peace".
By developing nuclear weapons, poor countries can acquire a certain degree of political independence - if only because it gives them the means to deter imperialism's regional client states from attacking them, but also because it gives them a bargaining chip in their relationship with imperialism. It is precisely to this kind of independence that imperialism objects. Just as it objects, on behalf of imperialist capital, to the development of homegrown nuclear industries in the poor countries, which can only give them a degree of independence from the world monopoly of western energy multinationals.
So far, only two Third World countries have managed, to some extent, to bypass the opposition of the "nuclear gang" - Pakistan and India, which both refused to join the NPT when it was launched, and began to develop experimental nuclear weapons from the early 1970s onwards. But this was largely due to their specific strategic position in the US regional power games.
Despite regular remonstrations from Washington, this did not prevent Pakistan from benefiting from a regular flow of US aid, including military aid - particularly after the occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet troops, when the Pakistani army and secret service became the go-between for US funding and arms supplies to the Afghan fundamentalist warlords. During the same period, India was subjected to limited sanctions by the US, but these were more or less offset by India's closer relationship with the Soviet Union.
However, by the second part of the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, both countries resumed nuclear and missile testing. This time the US response was harsher. Some financial sanctions were taken against both countries - although this was somewhat offset by the fact that they had more ties with British banks than US ones - and a new embargo on military and nuclear-related trade was declared after both countries carried out a spectacular series of nuclear tests in 1998.
The embargoes did not last long. Three years later, in 2001, Bush traded Pakistan's co-operation during the invasion of Afghanistan against the lifting of most sanctions, the resumption of US military supplies and a $3bn aid package. As for India, changes may have been slower, but at the end of last year, the US administration announced an unprecedented move - a comprehensive package aimed at helping India to develop an extensive independent civilian nuclear programme. How "independent", of course, remains to be seen, judging from the way in which, for instance, US multinationals have now turned India's coastal areas into their own private chemical back yard. But in any case, there is no longer any question of sanctions and the issue of nuclear weapons seems to have been put on the backburner.
But then, of course, the US is certainly pursuing its own regional strategic plan. In the case of Pakistan, in addition to the issue of the war in Afghanistan, which is far from settled, the US have now regained the influence which had been acquired by China during the sanction period. As to India, it is the only credible counterweight to China in South-East Asia and, although China is now supposed to be a 'partner' of the US, building a strong foothold in this country is probably seen by Washington as an advantage in its future relationship with China.
So, by now, India and Pakistan have, de facto, been allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and it seems as though they may well be allowed at some point to join the NPT without having to give up their nuclear and ballistic arsenal. But this, only because it serves the regional designs of US imperialism.
North Korea on the imperialist check board
North Korea has not been as fortunate as India and Pakistan. This is neither because it is a "rogue" or "terrorist" state, nor because of its human rights record - which is probably not worse than that of Myanmar, the former Burma, with which the Bush has no quarrel. Nor is it because of its past links with the Soviet Union. No, it is rather because, despite its small size, it is threatening the regional status quo on which the imperialist order in general, and US interests in particular, have been based in Eastern Asia since World War II.
Ever since the partition of Korea in 1945 and the subsequent Korean war, the existence of North Korea has given Washington a pretext to maintain large military forces in South Korea - currently still almost 40,000 troops - under the guise of protecting the country from potential aggression from the North. Even today, the relations between the US and South Korean military remain so close that, officially, responsibility for the security of South Korea still remains in the hands of a joint US-Korean chain of command.
It is ironical that US imperialism, whose representatives scream so loudly today over North Korea's alleged nuclear test, maintained several bases equipped with nuclear tactical weapons in South Korea for decades, until they were finally dismantled by Bush senior in 1991. Just as ironical is Bush junior's call at the UN for the "denuclearisation" of the Korean peninsula, when the 38th Security Consultative Meeting held at the same time between the US and South Korea issued a joint statement reaffirming "the continuation of the extended deterrent offered by the US nuclear umbrella" to South Korea! If anything, this shows that North Korea has good reason to be worried about its security.
In addition to these privileged links with the South Korean military, US capital enjoyed privileged economic relations with South Korea, heavily subsidised by the US administration, right from the days of the military dictatorships which followed the Korean war. As a result, today, South Korea is the only important economy dominated by US multinationals in a region which is largely occupied by Japanese capital.
Japan, for its part, has its own interests to defend in the region and although an ally of US imperialism, it is pursuing its own agenda with regards to Korea. So, between 2000 and 2002, the Japanese government implemented a policy of rapprochement with North Korea, offering humanitarian aid and technical assistance at a time when the country was facing a catastrophic famine. This led eventually, in September 2002, to the first visit of Japanese prime minister to Pyongyang, when the Japanese government made numerous political gestures and offers of cooperation.
At the same time the Japanese leaders made no secret of their ambition to act as a bridge between the North and the South and facilitate the so-called "Sunshine Policy" towards the North, initiated by South Korean president Kim Dae-jung.
In Washington, this was seen as a direct Japanese infringement on US influence over the Korean peninsula. After all, significant progress in the "Sunshine Policy" under the auspices of Japan could only compromise the US military presence in the South, as well as its political and economic influence.
Within weeks, the propaganda machine of the US administration had produced new "proof" of North-Korea's "secret nuclear programme". Under this pretext, the vital supply of heavy fuel which had been guaranteed to North Korea, as part of a 1994 agreement, in return for the mothballing of its old nuclear power plants was suspended. This left North Korea with only one alternative - either face a dramatic shortage of energy or reactivate the old nuclear plants. Unsurprisingly, it chose the latter solution, which then prompted a violent campaign in the western media.
That this hysteria coincided also with the 2002 South Korean presidential campaign was, of course, no coincidence. The candidate of the red-baiting "Grand National Party", opposed to the "Sunshine Policy", made as much capital as possible out of the "North Korean nuclear crisis". To no avail, however. The victor was Roh Moo-Hyun, of the Uri party, who had campaigned in favour of the pursuit of Kim Dae-jung's policy.
Today's North Korean "crisis"
Since the "crisis" with North Korea in late 2002 and the subsequent withdrawal of North Korea from the NPT, not much has changed.
A long series of negotiations, beginning in early 2003, have taken place without the US leaders fulfilling the promises they had made, back in 1994. The two light-water refrigerated nuclear power plants which had been promised by the US administration at the time, to replace North Korea's old graphite-based reactors, have still to be built. North Korea's energy supply has continued to deteriorate dramatically, despite the reactivation of its old nuclear reactors. The on-going sanctions prevent North-Korea from exporting its minerals and importing most of the spare parts it would need for its machinery. And the consequences of repeated droughts have taken a terrible toll among the population, despite the humanitarian aid provided (very sparingly) through the World Food Programme by China, Japan and the Europe Union, and directly by South Korea.
Meanwhile, the US-led red-baiting campaign against North Korea has carried on with the support of all members of the "nuclear gang" - with the exception of China, probably due to its concern about the development of a humanitarian crisis alongside its borders. The themes have varied over time. North Korea has been accused of flooding the world with weapons, when its arms trade was estimated to be worth around 0.4% of US arms sales. It was accused of having developed a long-range strategic missile capable of carrying a nuclear head to the heart of the USA (the US media even announced in 2003 that remnants of such a missile had been found in Alaska). However, the only time a multi-stage North Korean missile is known to have been tested, it was seen dropping into the sea shortly after its launch. North Korea was also accused of stockpiling bacteriological and chemical weapons. But as one commentator noted, while North Korea issued gas masks in the 1990s to its entire population, the South Korean government never bothered to do so - probably meaning that it never took the CIA's propaganda seriously.
The features of today's "crisis" are very similar to those of 2002 crisis. It started off, in September 2005, during yet another round of talks in Beijing. The US representatives refused, once again, to deliver on their promise concerning the light-water power plants. And to add insult to injury, it turned out that the US administration had demanded and obtained the freezing of funds held for trade purposes by North Korea in a Macau bank. This led to a break down in the talks. By July this year, North Korea was said to have carried out several missile tests, which were followed in October by the announcement of its alleged nuclear test.
After having allowed the media furore and speculation to gather plenty of momentum, Pyongyang's news agency eventually released an official statement confirming the test - although, without giving any details. So, in a sense, whether the test was real or not, the fact that the imperialist powers insisted on taking it seriously seemed to suit North Korea's agenda - as a means of returning to the negotiating table.
In fact, the sanctions included in resolution 1718 by the Security Council show that the "nuclear gang" itself does not take its own hysterical propaganda very seriously. Indeed, these sanctions concern mainly military supplies and any equipment which can be used in nuclear-related activities - but who sold such items to North Korea anyway? In addition, apparently to back up the imperialist propaganda according to which the North Korean leadership lives in luxury while the population starves, the resolution bans the import of luxury products to North Korea. As to the financial sanctions included in the resolution they were already part of a previous series sanctions.
However, what is also similar to 2002, is the political context in South Korea. The political stage is beginning to be set for next year's presidential election. Once again, the main contest will be between the Cold War Grand National Party, hostile to any form of reunification, and the Uri party which favours a new stage in the "Sunshine Policy", involving the formation of a "loose federation" between the two countries, the disbanding of the joint command structures between the US and South Korean army and a staged departure of US troops. Opinion polls show, according to press reports, that this issue may well prove to be the Uri party's most effective political argument in the election, particularly among the relatively large number of new young voters.
Just as the imperialist powers are waging another red-baiting campaign against the North Korean "threat", so does the South Korean secret service. In the aftermath of the nuclear test, a "spy scandal" suddenly broke out, with the arrest of five left activists or former activists, including the assistant-general secretary of the Democratic Labour Party - the left-wing party linked to the militant trade-union confederation KCTU, born out of the social explosion which brought the military dictatorship down in the early 1990s. The arrests were made under the anti-communist National Security Law, inherited from the days of the dictatorship. Given that it has been some time since this law has been used and given the close ties between the National Intelligence Service, responsible for these arrests, and the US special services, this is unlikely to be a coincidence.
So, the driving force in this "crisis", seems to be, once again, not North Korea's policy, but the determination of US imperialism to prevent a Korean reunification process, which would reduce its sphere of influence in East Asia. How many among North Korea's 23m inhabitants, are paying for this with their lives? Their living conditions have been reduced to what they were a century ago, due to lack of electricity and fuel. Wave after wave of North Koreans have to risk their lives by crossing over to the South or to China, not because they are political dissidents, but to avoid starvation. But who cares about their fate, among the imperialist leaders - whether it be Bush, the mastermind, or Blair who, once again, proves prepared to go along, all the way, with this criminal policy.