Holding neighbouring states hostage in the event of a US attack appears the most likely reason for president Kim Jong-Il's nuclear weapons programme
The disintegration of the Soviet Union some 12 years ago spawned unusual optimism over the prospects for world peace.
Politicians spoke of the US receiving a 'peace dividend', meaning lower taxes in the future because the need for a huge military force, much less an arms race, had become moot with the demise of the Soviet enemy.
If we have learned anything since then it is that there is always an enemy. The enemy now is rogue states like Iraq and North Korea, as well as international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
In the 20th century, battles were fought between real states, if not empires. The new century is starting out as a series of contests between the US and its allies, pitted against terrorist organisations and degenerate microstate dictatorships, with some of those states believed to possess weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea presents an alarming situation because we have been told by US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld that, in all likelihood, it already possesses nuclear weapons.
This is in total contravention of a 1994 treaty between North Korea, the US and Japan. The US and Japan agreed to fund $4.6bn to build two commercial nuclear power plants in North Korea. In exchange, North Korea promised not to develop nuclear weapons.
Yet in October, North Korea admitted it has been secretly engaged for years in developing an atomic bomb. Since then, it has taken steps to restart a reactor that can produce weapons-grade plutonium, disarm UN monitoring equipment and expel UN nuclear inspectors.
Heaped on all this has been vitriolic insults, threats and paranoid accusations aimed at the US. North Korean newspapers have spoken of the country's 'burning hatred of the US' and of a 'merciless punishment' that would be meted out against America.
North Korea also accuses the US of making it a target for a pre-emptive military strike.
Still, not all the rhetoric has been pointed at the US. Some has been directed at South Korea, a nation that has tried to eke out a role as peacemaker between the US and North Korea.
For their troubles, the president and president-elect of South Korea were told to butt out ' North Korea didn't need a third-party interfering in the conflict. Must be nice to have such a cordial neighbour to the north.
So just where does North Korea and its president, Kim Jong-Il, think it is going with this? Who does North Korea want to attack with a nuclear weapon? Who is it going to be? South Korea, maybe, although there is no apparent reason for the North to want to inflict such an attack on its neighbour, except in the context of a demented nuclear strategy.
Maybe Kim Jong-Il is thinking he needs an atomic weapon to go after Japan. Sounds far-fetched but remember, he has already test-fired a missile over the Japanese mainland.
One would have to presume the real opponent, but not target, is the US. What Kim Jong-Il may be thinking is that he can forge a version of the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction.
That doctrine became known by the acronym MAD, aptly some would say. It meant that if the Soviets launched a nuclear strike on the US, it guaranteed a nuclear response. It worked the other way, too. If the US attacked first, the Soviets would launch their missiles.
The safety came in the form of mutual destruction being literally assured by the other side's promised response. Sounds like Dr. Strangelove but that's the way some people thought then.
Obviously North Korea has no means of destroying the US in an all-out nuclear exchange, but it has something else. It has third-party MAD. The US assures North Korea of its destruction if it uses a nuclear device anywhere and North Korea presumes the US understands it will destroy another nation, a hostage of sorts, if it is attacked. This is 'assured hostage nation destruction'.
The logic here is that if the US attacks North Korea, the latter assures the destruction of a choice US ally that is nearby.
Any state would do as a hostage but the two mentioned earlier, South Korea and Japan, would be obvious; South Korea for its relationship with the US and Japan for its economic and political importance in Asia.
Why else would Kim Jong-Il want to pursue the madness of developing nuclear weapons?
Bloomberg newsroom, New York
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