The reported North Korean nuclear test, occurring in a mine shaft in a place called Kilju, was pretty much on the opposite side of the earth from the United States, yet it felt very close, almost as if it had occurred here, or maybe, in that peculiar way of atomic explosions, everywhere on earth at once. (For one thing, the pictorial representations of the seismic shocks radiating outward from the ground zero to measuring stations all over the globe reinforce this feeling.) There is something about nuclear explosions that collapses distance. Americans felt the effect immediately after Hiroshima. Truman had said, “We thank God it has come to us instead of to our enemies.” But many also instantly felt that American cities, too, were at risk, or soon would be. James Reston of The New York Times wrote, “In that terrible flash 10,000 miles away, men here have seen not only the fate of Japan but have glimpsed the future.“ Another commentator remarked “it would be the same as Denver, Colorado….being there one moment and wiped out the next.” Soon, of course, the bomb did come to America’s enemies, and now one more of them possesses it. The bomb had been presented to the world as a “weapon” for “war,” but it turned out to be a kind of crack in the earth into which the whole species could fall, never to be heard from again. And so as the news from Kilju flashed around the world, it again carried with it visions of the downfall of America’s cities, of collapsing skylines in New York, Chicago, L.A. Or in Bejing Tokyo or Delhi.
Of course there had been a lot of diplomacy aimed at preventing what has now happened. In 1994, Clinton, with the help of former President Jimmy Carter, negotiated a Agreed Framework under which North Korea froze its plutonium production facilities in place. But Bush, who seems to despise any work of man with Clinton’s fingerprints on it, rejected this approach, upended the Agreed Framework, and turned to confrontation. Korea kicked out international inspectors and resumed the separation of plutonium. Faced with these events, Bush joined six party talks that… But why go on? There will be time enough to unravel that story later.
It’s enough now to observe that the diplomacy continued but led to nothing, as it had to, for it was based on the fundamentally false and unworkable premise that countries that insist on having nuclear weapons can prevent proliferation by those who don’t, a process that a French diplomat once describe as trying to “castrate the impotent.” The indivisibility of the nuclear dilemma that Americans felt after Hiroshima and the chill in their bones that everyone now feels again is also a feature to the arsenals that produce the chill. They are the progeny of the same scientific formulas and technical inventions, and for more than sixty years now, they have summoning one another into existing, terror provoking counter-terror, bomb dueling bomb. And it is not of course North Korea’s tiny arsenal that can lay waste to continents and bring on nuclear winter: it is the arsenals of the United States and Russia, not to speak of England, France, China, Pakistan, India and Israel, about none of which anyone seems to have had a great deal to say recently.
And now it’s here: the North Korean bomb, with Kim Jong Il’s finger poised over his very own nuclear button. The endangered species let out a cry of pain, like someone who has been kicked. It took the form of a unanimous resolution at the Security Council of the United Nations condemning the test. But the question has never been whether or not anyone likes nuclear bombs, but what they are going to do about them. Nothing that comes close to dealing with the danger at the proper depth was suggested by the Council or anyone else.
Our President spoke, too. It was he who once had said the United States “will not accept” acquisition of the bomb by countries in his “axis of evil,” which included North Korea. Now, backing up, he said, “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or nonstate entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable the consequences of such action.” His words seemed to evaporate as spoke, as if carried off by the North Korean blas. He had halted nuclear proliferation where it was not happening—in Iraq—and let it happen where it was.
And who indeed imagines that, in the absence of global effort to deal with nuclear danger in its entirety, they can tear Kim Jong Il away from his new device? He cannot feed his own people yet he holds all Asia hostage with nuclear destruction. It is all he can do, this strange dictator presiding over his pitiless regime, now holding the pitiless weapon, which spares no one, in his hand.
Other things were going on, too, this week. The Dow Jones was hovering around a record high. Home prices were going south. The election campaign was rolling ahead. More filthy Instant Messages from Congressman mark Foley to Congressional pages were surfacing.
Those things, or some of them, were important in the way that things that happen in human life are, but not in the way that things that can end any and all life are. For all of those events, and all they mean or can ever mean can, together with the whole human fabric, can be brought to nothing in the flashlit void of the apocalypse of which a forgetful world was reminded by the shockwaves spreading out from Kilju.
Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World and The Fate of the Earth among many other titles, is the Nation Institute’s Harold Willens Peace Fellow. His “Letter from Ground Zero” column appears in the Nation Magazine regularly. He also writes for Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, and Tomdispatch.com. He is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.