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7 September 2017

History tells us why North Korea really wants the bomb

If your country had a past like Kim Jong-un's, wouldn’t you seek a nuclear deterrent?

By Peter Wilby

Why does Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, want nuclear weapons and why is he so keen on them reaching US cities? The answer is simple: Kim lives in terror of an American attack. This is not the paranoia of a madman. Post-1945 history gives him good reason for such fears.

During the Korean war in the early 1950s – between a Soviet-backed regime in the north and a US-backed regime in the south – American generals, supported by many members of Congress, twice demanded authorisation to use nuclear weapons. On the second occasion, General Douglas MacArthur wanted to drop between 30 and 50 atomic bombs. Instead, the Americans used conventional bombing which was unlike  anything used  in the Second World War except Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pyongyang, the northern capital, was destroyed. Five large dams were bombed, causing floods that wiped out the rice harvest. Many North Koreans were forced to live in underground tunnels.

The war was never concluded. An armistice was agreed with the north-south border still in place. A new US attack was discussed in Washington, DC, in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union fell. It became a live issue again in 2002 when President George W Bush bracketed North Korea with Iraq and Iran in an “axis of evil”. We all know what happened to non-nuclear Iraq.

If your country had a history like that, wouldn’t you want a nuclear deterrent? We insist on keeping one, even though the only countries that have bombed us don’t have nuclear weapons.

Bring on the ration books

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit, says the “extremely serious consequences of leaving the single market” haven’t been explained to the British. But no amount of explanation even from an officer of the Légion d’honneur will shift Leavers’ opinions. In great swathes of Leave-voting Britain, many feel that, no matter what befalls the economy, they can’t be worse off than they are now.

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In the 1940s, when overseas trade was limited – first because there was a world war, then because Britain ran out of foreign exchange – ordinary working people felt they counted for something and, thanks to rationing, felt they got a fairer share of limited resources than in previous decades. Now they believe they count for nothing. They have rumbled the great lie they have been told since 1979 – about how everyone would benefit from an economy run to enhance metropolitan money-making – and they will in future ignore anything governing elites, whether British, American or Continental European, tell them. Ration books? Bring them on.

Charitable sources

The Guardian is now a charity. Official. So is the New York Times. Within a few days of each other, the papers announced the creation of tax-exempt philanthropic arms in America to raise money for what the New York Times calls “ambitious journalism” and the Guardian calls “journalism on particular issues”. The latter already has a fundraising arm in Britain, but British fat cats are notoriously mean. The big money is in America.

Since there seems no end to the decline in newspaper circulation and advertising, the two papers are surely doomed, as print publications at least, unless they find new sources of revenue. But are newspapers that employ hundreds of journalists from mostly white, middle-class backgrounds, and pay their top writers, editors and other executives six-figure salaries, right to seek charitable largesse? If big media organisations grab donations, smaller, more local and – ahem – less spendthrift operations may get squeezed out.

Moreover, philanthropy nowadays seldom comes without strings. Among the first big donors to the Guardian are foundations set up by eBay founders. They will happily finance reporting on, for example, slavery and climate change but not, I think, on the tax affairs, employment practices and monopoly powers of Silicon Valley firms.

Weeding out the weak

As I wrote last week, cheating is endemic in education. Now it emerges that sixth-formers at St Olave’s Grammar in Orpington, south-east London, were thrown out of A-level courses if they didn’t get at least three B grades in first-year exams. Many other schools, including comprehensives, follow similar practices.

A-levels have six pass grades and more than 40 per cent of subject entries get C, D or E. As one teacher told me, even an E is “a real achievement for many”. The average entry standard at more than one in four universities is lower than three Bs. Ignore the twaddle about motivating students to aim high. St Olave’s and other schools game the system to improve their positions in the A-level league tables by weeding out weaker candidates. Everyone in the education industry knows this. Who cares? The English education system is built on failing students and excluding them from advancement into largely self-perpetuating elites.

Not seen on screen

Ding-dong. A parcel delivery, but not for me. They are online orders placed by absent neighbours. If your neighbours have teenage girls, who apparently order clothes online at least three times a week, you are at particular risk. The market value of the online fashion firm Asos, it is reported, has almost overtaken that of Marks & Spencer.

I am convinced this is a passing phase. The Wilby family does not buy anything – clothes, furniture, lamp shades, bed linen, towels, curtain material – unless we have, as it were, seen it in the flesh. Whatever something looks like online, its colour, style, shape and texture will look quite different when it arrives. No doubt online shoppers send back the goods and demand a refund or replacement. They will eventually realise that it’s less trouble to go to a shop. 

This article appears in the 06 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move