North Korea may or may not have exploded a nuclear bomb early this week. If it did, the explosive power of the bomb may not have been no more than that of 550 tons of TNT. That would make the bomb far less powerful than the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Those bombs were babies compared to the bombs in the arsenals of today’s leading nuclear powers (the United States, Russia and China). But they had the explosive power of 15,000 tons of TNT, and were powerful enough to kill some 300,000 people and to level both Japanese cities.

If those bombs were babies, what North Korea tested was less than a fetus. But the test itself demonstrated that it has the capability to build nuclear weapons, as has long been suspected. That certainty could give the current conservative government of Japan the pretext to amend the anti-war constitution so Japan can arm itself with nuclear weapons.

Since World War II, Japan has been many times governed by governments eager to boost its military capability. Some have entertained the nuclear option since the 1990s. Due to its militarist past mistrusted by South Korea and China, both of which Japan invaded, any move by Japan towards nuclear armament would trigger a South Korean and Chinese response. Highly industrialized Korea could itself seek nuclear weapons, while China could beef up its nuclear and missile systems in justifiable fear of a militarized Japan.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s having nuclear weapons raises fears that it could sell bomb-making material if not bombs themselves to other countries and to terrorist groups while it develops the missile system needed to deliver nuclear bombs to intended targets.

These consequences are not likely to have escaped North Korea’s leaders. They nevertheless went ahead with the test, in the process provoking even China into condemning them.

The Kim Jong-Il leadership has thus lived up to its reputation as an unpredictable entity whose actions seem to defy explanation. Since it test-fired medium-range missiles over the sea of Japan in 1998, North Korea has solidified its reputation as a “rogue state”. But it has been engaged in talks involving the United States, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea over the terms of a trade-off between its nuclear program and economic aid.

But North Korean statements both before and after its nuclear test indicate that its main concern is some assurance that the United States would not attack or invade it. This fear is based on US President George W. Bush’s labeling it part of the “axis of evil” together with Iraq, which the US soon after invaded. North Korea has long feared a US attack, and Bush’s labeling it, and attacking Iraq, confirmed those fears.

If North Korean fears are not entirely irrational given what happened to Iraq, its enhancing its military capability and its brinkmanship can similarly be understood. Ironically, its “irrational” flexing of military muscle has worked. It is likely to have deterred or softened whatever thoughts of military action against it the US is entertaining.

But North Korea’s military capacity is fairly limited compared to that of other countries. The frenzy over its nuclear test is driven by its “rogue state” reputation. India, Pakistan, and Israel have nuclear capabilities far beyond that of North Korea. The United States, China and Russia can destroy the world several times over, while France and Britain have enough nuclear arms to turn Europe into a howling wilderness.

And yet the world has learned to live with these countries because their leaders are assumed to be rational and responsible. Unlike North Korea and that other potential nuclear power, Iran, they are not “rogue states.”

Granting that none of the eight other nuclear powers deserve that label, it is nevertheless possible that that can change. The Russian government can fall into the hands of nationalist leaders eager to restore it to its glory days as a superpower. Some analysts believe that if cornered by its Arab opponents Israel could use nuclear weapons to preserve itself. The US has abandoned a declared policy to use nuclear weapons only in self-defense and has reserved the right to strike first.

The the entire planet is under constant threat of total and absolute destruction. The threat will continue as long as nuclear arms exist, there being no guarantee of rational behavior among the leadership of those who possess these arms. If the North Korean test is to have any meaning beyond the fears it has provoked, it should be to remind the world that a small country desperately trying to assure its survival is not the real threat to it. The vast arsenals of nuclear weapons in the hands of the world’s biggest powers are.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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