North Korea’s Performance Anxiety By William J. Broad


New York Times
May 6, 2012
Pg. SR7

News Analysis

“IT’S a boy,” Edward Teller exulted after the world’s first hydrogen bomb exploded in 1952 with a force 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

From the start, the nuclear era seethed with sexual allusions. Military officers joked about the phallic symbolism of their big missiles and warheads — and of emasculating the enemy. “Dr. Strangelove” mocked the idea with big cigars and an excited man riding into the thermonuclear sunset with a bomb tucked between his legs.

Helen Caldicott, the antinuclear activist, argued in the 1980s that male insecurity accounted for the cold war’s perilous spiral of arms. Her book? “Missile Envy.”

Today, the psychosexual lens helps explain why North Korea, in addition to dire poverty and other crippling woes, faces international giggles over its inability to “get it up” — a popular turn of phrase among bloggers and some headline writers.

“Things like this never go away,” Spencer R. Weart, an atomic historian and director emeritus of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics, said in an interview. “There’s little doubt that missiles are phallic symbols. Everybody agrees on that.”

On Friday, April 13, North Korea fired a big rocket on a mission to loft the nation’s first satellite into orbit. But it fell back to Earth with a splash.

The flop was the latest in 14 years of fizzles and outright failures in North Korea’s efforts to conduct showy tests of its long-range missiles and atom bombs. The blunders have damaged its military image and raised its profile among late-night comedians.

Arms controllers, more comfortable with technical minutiae than erotic imagery, nevertheless concede that North Korea now most likely stews with worries akin to those that can accompany sexual failure.

“It must be incredibly stressful,” noted Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He called it “performance anxiety.”

Analysts say that a flustered North Korea might now be preparing to conduct its third nuclear test, after the rocket failure last month. They point to satellite indications of atomic test preparations. And North Korea resorted to underground blasts after botched rocket launchings in 2006 and 2009.

A psychoanalyst might see the shift from blastoff to blast as a weird kind of substitute gratification. The recent rocket failure came during the impoverished state’s biggest holiday in decades — the centenary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung. The pressure for a face-saving spectacular is seen as correspondingly large.

A complication is that North Korea’s nuclear establishment is facing fundamental changes that could thwart an easy comeback. It is running out of plutonium bomb fuel, and is seen as probably trying to switch to highly enriched uranium.

Atomic analysts differ on the likely makeup of the test device but agree that the country stands at a critical juncture in getting beyond the giggles — if not the sexual innuendo.

“It was a huge loss of face,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior nonproliferation expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an arms analysis group in London, said of last month’s rocket failure. “It’s almost certain they will double down by proceeding with a third nuclear test.”

The odds of a new explosion rose on April 17 when North Korea scrapped a deal with Washington. In exchange for food, it had agreed to give up the enrichment of uranium and the testing of atom bombs and long-range rockets. Engineers use such tests to fix problems and verify advances, though most atomic states now adhere to a global nuclear test ban.

The big question is whether North Korea, if it moves ahead, will do a better job at shaking the ground locally and making the faraway needles of seismographs twitch.

During the cold war, nuclear foes used underground blasts to try to intimidate one another — and perhaps to feel more manly. Moscow had a habit of popping bombs on the Fourth of July, including the holiday that marked the American bicentennial.

North Korea fired its first bomb on Oct. 9, 2006. Surprised analysts judged the yield to be less than one kiloton — or equal to less than 1,000 tons of high explosives. By contrast, the first atomic blast of the United States was more than 20 times as powerful.

James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, recently told Congress that federal analysts had judged the explosion to be “a partial failure.”

North Korea’s second blast, on May 25, 2009, he added, “appeared to be more technically successful.” Mr. Clapper stopped short of calling it a roaring success. Its yield, after all, was estimated at two kilotons. By contrast, China’s second bomb was about 20 times stronger and Dr. Teller’s hydrogen bomb about 5 million times more powerful.

Analysts see North Korea’s switch to a new fuel as likely because in 2007 it shut down a reactor that made plutonium — which fueled its first two atomic blasts.

“Why base anything else on plutonium if it’s a dead end?” asked Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos weapons lab who has repeatedly visited North Korea.

A move to highly enriched uranium — or a mixture of the two bomb fuels, known as a composite core — would let North Korea expand its ways of shaking the earth and perhaps, one day, of mounting warheads atop missiles to intimidate neighbors.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan sought to reinvigorate the old metaphor by saying his Star Wars initiative would render enemy missiles “impotent and obsolete.” Ever since, antimissile salesmen, including some with an eye on North Korea, have engaged in various degrees of threat inflation.

But some military analysts say it’s quite possible that North Korea — instead of mastering the difficult technologies and expanding its nuclear arsenal — will continue to fail.

Jacques E. C. Hymans, who teaches international relations at the University of Southern California, argues in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that failed states like North Korea are doomed to poor workmanship, technical errors and finger pointing.

“These problems,” he said, “cannot be fixed simply by bringing in more imported parts through illicit supply networks.”

The phallic symbolism once centered on success. Nowadays, at least with North Korea, it seems as if it’s more about dysfunction.

William J. Broad is a science reporter for The New York Times who has written extensively about nuclear weapons.

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