North Korea Just Wants the 'Damn Bomb'

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TOKYO - In the movie Fat Man and Little Boy about the building of the atomic bomb, the late Paul Newman, playing Gen. Leslie Groves, administrator, of the Manhattan Project, vents frustration at the civilian pointy heads at Las Alamos who are challenging the rationale for the bomb in the spring of 1945.

“Just gimme the damn bomb!” he barks at Robert Oppenheimer, head of the team of scientists at the New Mexico ranch, who are designing the first workable bomb. It seems to me that this comment encapsulates at least two ideas that are germane to the problem of dealing with North Korea’s bid to become a full-fledged nuclear weapons state.

The first is that rationales for building such a weapon change over time. It should be remembered that the main motivation for the bomb, the reason why many of the scientists set aside their qualms about working on the world’s first weapon of mass destruction, was as a hedge against Nazi Germany getting one first.

By the beginning of 1945 it had become obvious that the Germany was not going to beat America to the bomb, indeed was on its last legs. Many people on the project began to question the need to proceed with its development. Their objections had certain logic to it, if the sole purpose was a hedge against German acquisition.

But by the time Germany surrendered in May the U.S. was tantalizingly close to having a working bomb and loath to give it up. That leads to the second proposition. It is very hard for any country that actually has a bomb or very close to having it to surrender it. Giving up a “program” that may or may not succeed is one thing but the bomb itself?

“Just gimme the damn bomb!”

The six-party talks, indeed negotiations stretching back to the Geneva Accords of 1994, have always been predicated on the proposition that North Korea’s nuclear program was basically a chip that could be bargained away for aid, diplomatic recognition, a peace treaty and integration into the international community, all things Pyongyang is believed to want.

The second testing of two small bombs, not to mention the parallel tests of multi-stage rockets, strongly suggests that, for whatever reason, North Korea’s underlying rationale for building a bomb has changed. What may have begun as a bargaining chip has become an end in itself. It may want all those good things, but it wants the bomb more.

I can envision my own movie where the North Korean generals bark at Kim Jong-il, something like this: “We’ve got the atomic bomb now, and you want to give it away? For an embassy? Are you crazy?” I don’t know whether North Korea’s generals speak to the Dear Leader in such tones. For that matter I don’t know if the Fat Man and Little Boy is precisely accurate as history, either. But I think it does speak to basic truths.
“Just gimme the damn bomb!”

If this is the case, is there any point to reconvene the six-party talks, assuming that Pyongyang agrees to join them? Is there anything meaningful to talk about? I would propose that they continue, but that nothing should be expected from them for a long time– simply mark time until events change, the new sanctions show some signs of working or the northern regime provides an opening.

The Obama administration has not yet formulated a strategy toward North Korea, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing now. I imagine that he came into office basically hoping to pursue the same bargaining strategy of his predecessors, but the unrelenting stream of invective backed by provocative actions from North Korea makes any kind of dialogue fruitless at this stage.

I’ve argued previously that the U.S. should consider reintroducing some nuclear weapons in South Korea or on aircraft carriers based in Japan that were withdrawn in the early 1990s in order to provide some tangible evidence that the “nuclear umbrella” that Obama endorsed in his recent meeting with South Korea’s  President Lee Myung-ban really exists. Why not turn the tables on North Korea? Let them be the ones who want to negotiate a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

Kim Jong-il is said to be a big movie fan. Perhaps he is already contemplating a movie where he plays the role of Gorbachev to Obama’s Ronald Reagan, as the two sides meet in a summit to endorse a pact whereby Kim gives up his nuclear weapons, while Obama graciously agrees to withdraw U.S. weapons from the region – you know, the ones that aren’t there now.

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