Charles Richardson writes:
As the world ponders the significance of North Korea’s latest round of missile tests, today’s Australian contains a remarkably clear analysis of the issue by Greg Sheridan. Sheridan is not usually my favourite columnist, but it’s hard to beat this for a quick wrap on Kim Jong-Il:
“He is, in a sense, cunning and resourceful. Certainly he is a rational
actor. But there is a touch of madness about him, too. North Korea is
the most isolated society on earth.
“Kim and his fellow leaders rarely leave home. They do not have a sure
grasp of how the world works. Their acquaintance with reality is not
altogether intimate. They view the world entirely through the prism of
their own paranoia.
“Of course, like many paranoids, they have real enemies.”
But I think Sheridan fails to fully grasp the logic of nuclear
deterrence. He says that in 2002, when North Korea was confronted over
uranium enrichment, “Rather astonishingly, they bluntly confirmed the
existence of the program.” But if the purpose of the nuclear program
was deterrent, then confirming – even boasting – of its existence is
not surprising at all.
If you’re developing weapons to use in a surprise attack on your
neighbours, then it makes sense to keep them a secret until they’re
ready to use. But if they are meant to deter, then secrecy would be
pointless. North Korea’s brazenness about its weapons actually lends
some credence to its claim that its intentions are not aggressive.
Although proliferation is a serious problem, it’s not true that nuclear
weapons always lead to instability. The Cold War would probably have
been a much more bloody and unstable period if the superpowers had only
had conventional weapons; the threat of nuclear annihilation kept the
peace. It’s not a good solution, but it’s better than no solution at
If Kim’s aim is deterrence, then it is still possible that some
combination of incentives will bring him to a negotiated settlement. We
can accept Sheridan’s assessment of North Korea and its “psychopathic”
leader without fully sharing his pessimism.