The New North Korea: Absurdistan with the Bomb

What does North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il want? By testing a nuclear weapon, the enigmatic dictator has angered his closest ally China and shifted the Asian balance of power. But the country may just be lashing out in paranoia.

North Korean propaganda may refer to the communist state as a worker’s paradise, but conditions this winter are unlikely to be particularly heavenly for people living there. The temperature in a lot of apartments will barely get past 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), some houses don’t even have glass in the windows and few have central heating. In the coal-rich north of the country meanwhile, emaciated children with blackened, aged faces dig mine shafts with their bare hands and old women drag themselves into the mountains in a desperate search for anything edible. Some are so weak that they sit apathetically on the side of the road, next to bundles of twigs, leaves and roots. The state system for distributing meat, rice and vegetables collapsed long ago.

The 600 kilometer train journey from the northern border to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang often takes 60 hours. There are neither enough train engines nor enough fuel. Railway workers in the respective provinces often end up "borrowing" the trains for their own transport needs. And it’s not a good idea to fall sick in this strange empire, which is officially still ruled by a dead president -- the “Eternal President,” Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. Because of the lack of medication, doctors are increasingly forced to operate on patients without anesthetic -- or to not operate at all. Broken bones are rarely put in casts.

But despite this misery, this drained and poverty-stricken country managed to pull off the extraordinary last week: On Monday morning the beloved “Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il apparently set off an atomic bomb in a tunnel in the province of North Hamgyong -- just a few hundred kilometers from China, Russia and South Korea. According to North Korea’s propaganda machine, this was an achievement only made possible thanks to homegrown wisdom and technology. The claim, though, is not entirely true: North Korean scientists were trained in the former Soviet Union, Russians built the reactor in Yongbyon, and it is thought that the centrifuges necessary to enrich the uranium used in the explosion come from Pakistan.

Size matters

It appears to have been a relatively small explosion with a yield of less than a kiloton -- the atom bomb in Hiroshima in the summer of 1945 measured 15 kilotons. Now, scientists the world over have to carefully evaluate their seismic data to determine exactly what sort of explosion took place -- and whether it was originally meant to be much larger.

Just how far North Korea's nuclear weapons program has really come -- and just what is going on in the secret atomic base of Yongbyon, located some 100 kilometers from Pyongyang -- remains an open question. Neither the CIA nor the secret services from Russia and China seem to know. And the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency has had no access to the facility since 2003, when North Korea stepped out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

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One of the last experts to have seen Yongbyon in operation described to SPIEGEL what the situation was like at the end of 2002: “It’s a massive site, with lots of very competent scientists -- on the one hand. But then there was a strange contradiction: We asked to see two buildings which we had not been allowed to inspect. After a great deal of hesitation the doors were opened. The scientists were using one hall to secretly distill Vodka. In the other they were producing cooking spoons out of aluminum. At the time, these things weren't available in North Korea. On the black market the goods could be sold, and provided an extra source of income for the scientists.”

North Korea must be the only nuclear power in the world which is so poor that its top scientists are forced to spend their free time making kitchen utensils. It is not Kim Jong Il's megalomania nor his obsession with sovereignty which makes this regime so dangerous. Rather, it’s the country's failures and weaknesses.

Iran is also on the way to joining the club of nuclear nations. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims -- a benign smile on his lips -- that his country is only interested in the civil use of nuclear energy. North Korea and its dictator are different. Kim Jong Il is determined to build the bomb, and doesn't shy away from threatening the US along the way. America already has sanctions in place against North Korea and is now looking to up the pressure with a UN resolution -- in order, or so Kim suspects, to bring about the regime’s collapse.

But the nuclear weapons test is also an affront to China, which acts as North Korea’s protector and has helped the country survive so far. Which is why Beijing’s reaction at the moment is hardly any different to that of America. With North Korea dangerously lashing out, China is hardly in the mood to guarantee the country's safety.

The fall of the Soviet empire appears to have had no impact on this part of Asia. Since 1953, when the country was divided between north and south, the region has stood absolutely still politically. 1953 was also the turning point when Taiwan and South Korea were brought permanently into the American sphere of influence, and China became Asia’s first atomic power.

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New arms race

But October 9 could well change a few things, and Kim’s bomb has the potential to shake up international relations in the region. South Korea and Japan could now start feeling the urge to develop nuclear weapons. The economic superpower China, which sees itself as the supervising force of the world’s largest continent, is now surrounded by four nuclear states: India, Pakistan, Russia and North Korea. And what about Taiwan? The lesson of the Iraq war is that atomic weapons are a deterrent and a guarantee of national sovereignty. But will communist China, which calls for Taiwan to be reunited with the mainland, allow that?

America is the anti-communist force to be reckoned with in Asia. About six months ago, the US signed an agreement with the nuclear power India, and has also entered into a shaky alliance with Pakistan. But in recent years, the US has been looking on helplessly at Kim's theatrics. Just like with Iran's Ahmadinejad, the only reason he is able to get away with such a performance is because America is weakened by the fiasco in Iraq.

The result is that what amounts to an autistic regime possesses a weapon that can wipe out whole cities and millions of people. Kim is an enigmatic leader in platform shoes with a weakness for Hollywood. The world has no idea whether he is acting rationally or if he is simply mad -- especially when he says things like “if we lose, I’ll destroy the world.”

The bomb has allowed Kim to get the attention he thinks he deserves. In Tokyo, newspapers published special supplements focusing on the situation and television stations interrupted their normal schedules with regular news updates. Some channels showed pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to remind people of the tragedy of August 1945. Other programs interviewed the elderly parents of Megumi Yokata, who was abducted at the age of 13 and taken to North Korea -- a case symbolic for the inhumane system which Kim Jong Il inherited from his father.

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