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Update – North Korea and H5N1: Sense of Proportion

UPDATE: The US biosecurity people have just ordered some details of the H5N1 research to be omitted in the papers that will be published in scientific journals. Rejoice!

The article has been modified accordingly. Use this version.

20 December 2011

North Korea and H5N1: A Sense of Proportion

By Gwynne Dyer

Western intelligence agencies have been warning for years about the terrible consequences that would ensue if Iran were to get nuclear weapons. Better bomb the place before they do.

But North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and now they are falling into the hands of a young man whose main qualification for office is that he is less weird than his half-brother, who was caught trying to sneak into Japan on a false passport to visit Disneyland Tokyo.

The North Korean story has got a lot of play in the international media in the last few days, partly because Kim Jong-un is such an obvious misfit for the job of “Great Successor.” What gives the story legs, however, is North Korea’s nuclear weapons (both of them), its huge army (fifth-biggest in the world), and its insanely belligerent rhetoric.

A mere two nuclear weapons, so primitive and clumsy that they are probably only deliverable by truck, are not useable for attack. Their only sensible purpose is to deter an attack, and North Korea’s are not very credible even in that role. All very well, the intelligence analysts say, but what if the people who control the weapons are crazy?

Well, Kim Il-sung’s understanding of the rest of the world was severely limited, and so was Kim Yong-il’s. Kim Jong-un may be no better. But for sixty years now North Korea has not attacked anybody. They can’t be all that crazy.

So we have, on the one hand, these not very convincing official claims, loyally repeated by Western media, that the latest dynastic succession in North Korea might “destabilise” north-eastern Asia, even lead to a local nuclear war. And on the other hand, we have this modest bio-lab in the Netherlands that has fabricated an ultra-lethal variant of the “bird flu” virus and plans to publish its results.

The Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam is a long way from the secret underground lairs where James Bond-style villains hatched their evil plans, and Dr Ron Fouchier, the lead researcher in the H5N1 experiment, does not look a bit like Dr. No. In fact, Fouchier is a decent man who means well. Yet what he has made is far more dangerous than North Korea’s bombs.

When the H5N1 virus first appeared in 1996, there was a global panic, for it killed about 60 percent of the people it infected. The panic subsided when it turned out that the virus could only be spread by very close physical contact between people; you were most unlikely to catch it by sitting next to someone on a bus.

It would have been very different if the virus had been as infectious as the common cold, which is usually spread by tiny water droplets coughed out by the infected person. Since H5N1 was not a “airborne” virus, it killed only a few hundred people, not a few hundred million – but viruses can mutate. How easy would it be for H5N1 to mutate into an “airborne” global killer?

That’s the question that Dr Fouchier set out to answer. He caused deliberate mutations in the virus and then repeatedly passed it manually from one lab animal to another – and quite soon, he had what he was looking for.

“In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air,” Fouchier said in a statement on the university’s website. “This process can also take place in a natural setting. We know which mutation to look for in the case of an outbreak, and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late.”

That was the point of the experiment, of course. The research, funded by the US National Institutes of Health, was intended to discover just how likely such a mutation of the virus was. Nobody seemed to mind the fact that this involved creating exactly that virus – and, if normal scientific practise is followed, publishing the full genetic sequence of the mutated virus in a scientific journal.

Fouchier’s scientific paper has already been submitted to the scientific journal “Nature”, and the results of a parallel experiment carried out by Dr Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the Universities of Wisconsin and Tokyo, also funded by the National Institutes of Health, were submitted to “Science”.

The US government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity has just ordered key details of the research to be omitted before publication, so that terrorists cannot use the information to create their own global quick-killer virus. The exact gene sequences and the exact details of the experiments will therefore be known only to the few hundred people who have already seen them. No doubt they can all be trusted.

But this is a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. There are probably several terrorist organisations, and dozens of governments, that can duplicate Fouchier’s research now that they know how he did it. As former arms control researcher Mark Wheelis of the University of California, Davis, said: “Blocking publication may provide some small increment of safety, but it will be very modest compared to the benefits of not doing the work in the first place.”

There are more frightening things in the world than wonky North Korean dictators.

______________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 12 and 13. (“Well…crazy”; and “That…Science”)

North Korea and H5N1

20 December 2011

North Korea and H5N1: A Sense of Proportion

By Gwynne Dyer

Western intelligence agencies have been warning for years about the terrible consequences that would ensue if Iran were to get nuclear weapons. Better bomb the place before they do.

But North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and now they are falling into the hands of a young man whose main qualification for office is that he is less weird than his half-brother, who was caught trying to sneak into Japan on a false passport to visit Disneyland Tokyo.

The North Korean story has got a lot of play in the international media in the last few days, partly because Kim Jong-un is such an obvious misfit for the job of “Great Successor.” What gives the story legs, however, is North Korea’s nuclear weapons (both of them), its huge army (fifth-biggest in the world), and its insanely belligerent rhetoric.

A mere two nuclear weapons, so primitive and clumsy that they are probably only deliverable by truck, are not useable for attack. Their only sensible purpose is to deter an attack, and North Korea’s are not very credible even in that role. All very well, the intelligence analysts say, but what if the people who control the weapons are crazy?

Well, Kim Il-sung’s understanding of the rest of the world was severely limited, and so was Kim Yong-il’s. Kim Jong-un may be no better. But for sixty years now North Korea has not attacked anybody. They can’t be all that crazy.

So we have, on the one hand, these not very convincing official claims, loyally repeated by Western media, that the latest dynastic succession in North Korea might “destabilise” north-eastern Asia, even lead to a local nuclear war. And on the other hand, we have this modest bio-lab in the Netherlands that has fabricated an ultra-lethal variant of the “bird flu” virus and plans to publish its results.

The Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam is a long way from the secret underground lairs where James Bond-style villains hatched their evil plans, and Dr Ron Fouchier, the lead researcher in the H5N1 experiment, does not look a bit like Dr. No. In fact, Fouchier is a decent man who means well. Yet what he has made is far more dangerous than North Korea’s bombs.

When the H5N1 virus first appeared in 1996, there was a global panic, for it killed about 60 percent of the people it infected. The panic subsided when it turned out that the virus could only be spread by very close physical contact between people; you were most unlikely to catch it by sitting next to someone on a bus.

It would have been very different if the virus had been as infectious as the common cold, which is usually spread by tiny water droplets coughed out by the infected person. Since H5N1 was not a “airborne” virus, it killed only a few hundred people, not a few hundred million – but viruses can mutate. How easy would it be for H5N1 to mutate into an “airborne” global killer?

That’s the question that Dr Fouchier set out to answer. He caused deliberate mutations in the virus and then repeatedly passed it manually from one lab animal to another – and quite soon, he had what he was looking for.

“In the laboratory, it was possible to change H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible virus that can easily be rapidly spread through the air,” Fouchier said in a statement on the university’s website. “This process can also take place in a natural setting. We know which mutation to look for in the case of an outbreak, and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late.”

That was the point of the experiment, of course. The research, funded by the US National Institutes of Health, was intended to discover just how likely such a mutation of the virus was. Nobody seemed to mind the fact that this involved creating exactly that virus – and, if normal scientific practise is followed, publishing the full genetic sequence of the mutated virus in a scientific journal.

Fouchier’s scientific paper has already been submitted for publication, but the US government’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity still has the power to order key parts of the paper to be redacted, so that terrorists cannot use the information to create their own global quick-killer virus.

But the cat is already out of the bag: there are probably several terrorist organisations, and dozens of governments, that can duplicate Fouchier’s research now that they know how he did it. As former arms control researcher Mark Wheelis of the University of California, Davis, said: “Blocking publication may provide some small increment of safety, but it will be very modest compared to the benefits of not doing the work in the first place.”

There are more frightening things in the world than wonky North Korean dictators.

______________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“Well…crazy”; and “That…journal”)

The Son Also Rises

24 September 2010

The Son Also Rises

By Gwynne Dyer

Next week, according to North Korea-watchers, the Korean Workers’ Party (i.e. the Communists) will hold an assembly in Pyongyang to anoint Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, as the successor to his father and grandfather. There is already a song, “Footsteps”, that praises the young man’s qualities as a leader, and lapel badges with his image are already being churned out so that every North Korean citizen can wear one.

Egypt is not quite so weird, in the sense that the three generals who have ruled the country for the past 54 years were not actually blood relations, but it is getting weirder. It is universally believed that President Hosni Mubarak, now 82, is grooming his 46-year-old son Gamal as his successor. There were public protests about that in Cairo and Alexandria last week, though the police soon broke them up with the usual arrests and violence.

But where does this all come from? How can anybody believe that none of the 85 million Egyptians is better suited to be president than the son of the present incumbent, or that the “Young General”, Kim Jong-un, is the only one of North Korea’s 24 million people who is qualified to rule the country?

In fact, nobody does believe it, and neither of these men has a powerful personal following of his own. Moreover, these countries are republics, not monarchies. They may be dictatorial, repressive republics, but the whole notion of dynasties is alien to republics of any sort. So how can this sort of thing happen?

In monarchies, the son is SUPPOSED to inherit power from his father. In modern monarchies, they don’t usually get much power anyway, since the job is largely ceremonial, but at least there is a theoretical basis for passing power down in this way. In a republic, on the other hand, there is just no room for the hereditary principle in politics.

Power does pass down within families in democratic republics from time to time, as with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India and the Bush family in the United States, but only if the would-be successor can win a real election. What’s happening in authoritarian republics like Egypt and North Korea is quite different – and neither the father nor the son may be the prime mover behind the choice of the latter as successor.

The first modern case of an inherited dictatorship was Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez as the president of Syria in 2000. The way he got chosen is quite instructive.

.Hafez al-Assad was a former air force general who had ruled Syria with an iron fist for thirty years. He did want to keep power within the family, but it was his older son Basil whom he was grooming to succeed him. However, Basil died in a car accident in 1994, and Bashar (who was studying ophthalmology in London at the time) was ordered back to Syria by his father and put into an intensive programme of military and political training.

When his father died six years later, Bashar, at the age of 35, was swiftly chosen to succeed him – but how did that happen? Hafiz al-Assad had wanted it to happen, but he was now dead. Why did all the other major players in the Syrian regime, a notoriously ambitious and ruthless group of men, agree to make this inexperienced nobody their leader?

Because they wanted to preserve their own privileges and power, and that could best be guaranteed by letting the old dictator’s son take power. In a one-party regime, there are no real rules for the succession, and the risk that a struggle between rivals for the leadership will destroy the unity of the party and bring the whole regime down is ever-present.

Unless the son of the late leader is a murderous megalomaniac, he is the safest choice no matter how poor his qualifications are for the job. He can lead in name while the real decisions are made elsewhere, and all the powerful people within the regime get to keep their accustomed places at the trough.

That is the logic that brought Bashar al-Assad to power in Syria ten years ago, and it is what creates support within the North Korean and Egyptian regimes today for the elevation of the current dictators’ sons to supreme power after their fathers die. It really doesn’t matter who is up on the reviewing stand taking the salute, as long as the thousand most powerful people in the regime keep their jobs.

So Kim Jong-un (now 27 years old) will be acclaimed as the next leader of North Korea by the Party congress – and will probably take up the job quite soon, since his father had a stroke two years ago and is now very frail. Gamal Mubarak will run for president in next year’s “election” in Egypt, and will win because the regime always fixes the elections. But despite the extraordinary durability of these regimes, they are not indestructible.

If you can credibly say about some situation that “it cannot go on like this forever,” then the only logical alternative is that it will eventually stop. Just not right now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (”In monarchies…successor”)

North Korea: The 2005 Deal Again

16 February 2007

North Korea: The 2005 Deal Again

By Gwynne Dyer

The tentative deal on North Korea’s nuclear weapon programme on 13 February is worse than the deal that the Bush administration wrecked in 2005, and considerably worse than the one the Clinton administration made but did not abide by in 1994. This deal lets North Korea keep whatever nuclear weapons it has already built, plus whatever others it can build with fissile material that it has already produced. But it’s probably the best deal left.

The pattern of bargaining by nuclear blackmail that is now so closely identified with Kim Jong-il’s regime actually began in the final full year of his father’s rule. In 1993, Kim Il-sung’s regime refused an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Authority of North Korea’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Instead, he announced, Pyongyang would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and reprocess 8,000 spent fuel rods from Yongbyon to extract plutonium suitable for nuclear weapons.

By June, 1994 the Clinton administration was seriously discussing air strikes against Yongbyon, but former president Jimmy Carter sensed that this was actually a bargaining ploy by a regime that was in desperate economic trouble. (Like Cuba, North Korea had depended heavily on Soviet economic subsidies that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in late1991.) Carter went to Pyongyang and substituted bribery for threats. Within days, North Korea agreed to remain under NPT safeguards, admit IAEA inspectors, and stop trying to reprocess plutonium.

In return, under the “Agreed Framework”, the United States, South Korea, and Japan promised to supply Pyongyang with two pressurised-water reactors (whose spent fuel would not yield fissile material), after which North Korea would shut down its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon. They would also provide North Korea with 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil annually for free, and facilitate the shipment of a large volume of food aid by various international aid agencies.

Pyongyang obeyed this agreement for the next eight years, although it soon discovered a loophole: the deal did not explicitly ban North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons by the alternative means of mining uranium ore and enriching it. And although the free oil arrived faithfully each year through the later 1990s, enabling the North Korean economy to stagger on, the United States never kept its commitment to build two pressurised-water reactors for North Korea. Then the Bush administration took office in 2001, and disavowed the deal entirely.

President Bush denounced Kim Jong-il as a monstrous tyrant (perfectly true), and formally abandoned the US commitment to build two pressurised-water reactors for North Korea. Shortly afterwards he ended free oil shipments to the country — and a year later, after 9 /11, Bush declared the North Korean regime a member of the “axis of evil” that the United States was going to dismantle.

Pyongyang panicked, and Kim Jong-Il did exactly what his father had done in 1993. In October, 2002, North Korea openly acknowledged its secret uranium enrichment programme, and in January, 2003 it withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Soon afterwards it began reprocessing the 8,000 spent fuel rods from Yongbyon that had been in storage since 1994.

North Korea just wanted the “Agreed Framework” back — but this was the time when the neo-conservative tide was in full flood in Washington, and the Bush administration was in no mood for shabby bargains with a regime from the Dark Side. Pyongyang was told that it had to renounce its nuclear programme before the United States would deign to negotiate with it.

“North Korea has been going through its blackmail handbook, but we’re not going to play,” declared US Deputy Undersecretary of State John Bolton. “We are not in the marketplace to buy off North Korea’s accumulation of weapons of mass destruction. For us, all options are on the table.” All very well, except that Washington, already fully committed to the invasion of Iraq, really didn’t have any military options against North Korea.

The so-called “six-party talks,” including North Korea, the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, finally got underway in August, 2003. Everybody else involved was well aware that any agreement would have to resemble the 1994 deal, but the Bush administration desperately resisted that conclusion. On several occasions North Korea flounced out of the talks, and eventually an agreement was reached along the predictable lines.

In September, 2005 North Korea agreed to rejoin the NPT, end its efforts to produce nuclear weapons, and re-admit IAEA inspectors. In return, the other parties agreed to resume oil shipments to North Korea and to build the promised pressurised-water reactors, and the United States promised not to attack North Korea or try to overthrow its regime.

Then, quite unexpectedly, the US Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on North Korea on the (unproven) grounds that Pyongyang was counterfeiting US dollars. It’s still not clear whether this was a deliberate spoiling move by hard-liners within the administration or just poor policy coordination, but the deal fell apart. A year later, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon.

Now, inevitably, there is a new deal along much the same lines: North Korea shuts down the Yongbyon reactor, and gets a million tonnes of fuel in return. But now it has at least a couple of nuclear weapons (though they may not work very well), and it looks like it gets to keep them.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“North Korea…NorthKorea”)