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The new nuclear power

Observations on North Korea

On 25 May North Korea conducted a successful test of a plutonium-based nuclear weapon. Since the detection of the blast – similar in force to that of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the question of how to read this action, and how best to respond, has reverberated through the media and the halls of power.

Pyongyang last tested a nuclear missile in October 2006, when technical failure produced only a small blast. However, this latest explosion is proof that North Korea’s scientists and engineers have overcome earlier problems. Pyongyang is now a nuclear power.

The North was already testing its long-range missile capability, launching the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite on 5 April in defiance of international warnings. The US says that such a rocket could reach its western shores. There is little justification for the claim, but it is influential. The UN Security Council has threatened enhanced sanctions in response to the launch. Pyongyang has promised to respond to what it sees as blackmail with a second nuclear test.

The nuclear and long-range missile tests; the withdrawal from the 1953 Armistice Agreement; the threat to South Korea after it joined the US in the Proliferation Security Initiative to intercept North Korean ships transporting conventional arms and missiles. All of these actions indicate that Pyongyang is attempting to force Washington to engage seriously in seeking a settlement to help North Korea’s regime survive. (Reports suggest Kim Jong-il has named his successor – his third son, Kim Jong-un.) If this strategy does not work, the peninsula is in more danger than it has been for a generation.

Fifteen years ago the North Korean threat to global security seemed to have been neutralised by Bill Clinton. The 1994 Framework Agreement offered a diplomatic relationship with the US, including an end to sanctions imposed more than 40 years earlier, and the construction of two light water reactors (LWRs). In return, Pyongyang was tasked with the disablement of its Yongbyon reactor and freezing construction of two larger nuclear power plants. But the spirit of the agreement was broken on both sides. Construction of the two LWRs was painfully slow: Washington prevaricated, hoping the North would collapse. Pyongyang, too, delayed the process with demands that the workers get better wages. By 2002, the eight-year programme was overrunning by more than a decade.

It was then that George W Bush accused North Korea of having a second nuclear weapons programme. He produced no evidence of any kind, but the last remnants of the agreement were abrogated. The North’s options were to hold up a white flag or restart its nuclear programme. It chose the latter. For liberals in Washington this is a tragedy. But, for the ultra-neocon faction in the US, and for Japan’s neo-nationalists, the cloud has a silver lining. China has been deeply disturbed by the test. Unless President Obama is moved to engage seriously, the test will provide an excuse to continue development of the “Star Wars” technologies that will threaten Russia and China, as well as the official targets, Iran and North Korea. It will also provide Japanese neo-nationalists with an argument for Tokyo’s remilitarisation.

The nuclear test was certainly unwelcome, but not illegal, and at present the country is only a threat to its immediate neighbours, South Korea and Japan. But the North makes exaggerated claims and Washington builds on them. The payload capacity to carry a nuclear weapon to the US is not in place, and nor is the guidance system, necessary to make a launch anything more than a hopeful lob.

Resolving the impasse will require China to use its influence. Pyongyang must be persuaded to make concessions in exchange for a comprehensive settlement with Washington that will allow the North to continue the reforms, slow as they have been so far, that will take it into the global economy. Hardliners in Pyongyang, Tokyo and Washington will all want to continue to sabotage any such deal. But Beijing needs to apply the stick while the west proffers carrots, if not for today, then for tomorrow.

Glyn Ford, Labour MEP for South-West England, is the author of “North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival” (Pluto, £18.99)

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.