North Korea’s Gone Ballistic

07Jul09

States play with nuclear weapons the way boys play with their toys, writes Naveen Naqvi.

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It was a joke someone cracked after North Korea test-fired seven ballistic missiles on July 4, Independence Day in the United States. I have to admit that I laughed at the word play, given my susceptibility to corny humour. Within a split second, though, I felt ashamed of myself and looked around guiltily to see if anyone had heard.

This is not a laughing matter, I thought. Well, actually, it kind of is.

When you think about it, a nation decided to test-fire weapons that are capable of killing millions of people – not to mention mutating future generations (and forget about what it’ll do to old Mother Earth) – in an act of defiance. Much like a rebellious teenager or a spoilt brat. South Korea and Japan called it an ‘act of provocation.’ It’s a bit of a prank, isn’t it? Nothing more than an annoyance?

It seems to me that everything about weapons of mass destruction reeks of a boys-with-their-toys nonchalance and a perverse ‘cute-ification’ (yes, I know that’s not a word). It started in 1945 when the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. The code name for the first was ‘Little Boy’ and the second was ‘Fat Man.’ Cute.

I recently read Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Broken Verses, and realised how seldom one is reminded of that original and singular display of foot-stomping. Through the book, Shamsie’s protagonist, a Japanese holocaust survivor, keeps asking herself why the Americans would have dropped the second one. Fine, you drop the first and make your point. The second time, it’s just plain stubbornness – ‘You threw sand in my face. I’ll throw not one, but two fistfuls in yours.’

Can we please for a moment remember that we’re not six years old and in the playground?

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Let’s bring it closer to home now. On the anniversary of Pakistan’s nuclear tests this year, I talked to Mushahid Hussain Syed, who was the Information Minister in May 1998 while Nawaz Sharif was Prime Minister. Mr Syed arrived on the sets, charged, barely concealing his enthusiasm as he clapped his hands with glee and proclaimed it to be a great day.

He needed little encouragement when I asked for the inside story, and recalled that after the sixth test, he asked Nawaz Sharif, ‘Mian Sahib, but why did you conduct the sixth test?’ He said that Mian Sahib chuckled and said, ‘Well, India tested five so I thought we would test SIX!’ At this retelling, the former minister chuckled to himself while I smiled and said, ‘I have to say that it sounds to me like a game the way you talk about it, Mr Syed.’ ‘No, no. It was a very serious matter,’ he said in response.

India is not that different from Pakistan when it comes to their posturing. The moment there’s any tension, for example, at the slightest sign of conflict that flared in 1999 when Pakistan and India were ‘eyeball to eyeball’, both states can be counted on to live up to the stereotypes and low expectations of us brownies with bombs.

‘The nuclear option cannot be ruled out,’ say heads of state. What that really means is, ‘We can push the button,’ or, ‘No, we can push the button first.’

Recently, I was having a conversation with visiting Indian journalist and anti-nuclear activist, Jatin Desai, when Karamat Ali of PILER said, ‘We’re spending so much money trying to keep these weapons safe when they were meant to make us safe!’ The estimate is up to hundred million dollars from the United States, according to reports that have subsequently been denied. Imagine that same amount of money being spent on development, education and the eradication of poverty, some of the core reasons behind the rise of terrorism in this region.

So, yes, when it comes down to it, the whole nuclear issue is a bit of a joke.

This post was first published on 7th July 2009 on dawn.com

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