Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Tuesday, 7 January 2003

Traces of the toxin ricin have been found in London - seven people arrested (one since released). The six remaining in custody are of North African origin, apparently.

The BBC report that the seven were arrested in the early hours of 5 January (Sunday last) under the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows police to hold suspects for seven days, from various locations in North and East London. It was confirmed today that traces of ricin had been found in material taken from an address in North London.

There is much talk that it might be another attempt by al-Qa'ida to conduct a terrorist outrage. Who knows? It could just as easily be some other terrorist group or individual, or even people acting on behalf of some foreign government (Iraq and North Korea spring to mind - see article below).

This poison is apparently not particularly suitable for use against mass targets as it must be ingested by or injected into the victim. It is thought this latter was the method used to murder dissident Bulgarian Georgi Markov, who was stabbed on Waterloo Bridge in London with a poisoned umbrella in 1978.
The lessons we must learn from the frightening fact of North Korean blackmail and duplicity if we are to are to avoid similar problems in future - from Iraq and some other rogue nations.

The International Atomic Energy Authority (the IAEA is part of the UN) meeting in Vienna yesterday said it "deplores in the strongest terms" the removal by North Korea of UN surveillance equipment and has urged the North Korean government to re-admit the inspectors it expelled last month. Speaking to the 35-nation IAEA Board of Directors, director general Mohamed ElBaradei declined to set a deadline for North Korea to co-operate: "It's clearly a matter of weeks - I'd like to give diplomacy a chance to work and the DPRK(*) time." He added: "The international community is not ready to negotiate under blackmail. Unless the DPRK co-operates fully with the agency the matter will be referred to the Security Council."

* - North Korea's official name is the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea"

For its part, whilst the Bush administration is adamant it will not offer fresh concessions to North Korea to return to previous commitments, Ari Fleischer (White House spokesman) said that America would work "shoulder to shoulder" with South Korea in finding a solution.

However, according to a report in today's Daily Telegraph, US conservatives are starting to ask, outside of diplomatic channels, whether the Bush administration should withdraw troops from South Korea, leaving a seemingly ungrateful ally to fend for itself. According to the report, Daryl Plunk (a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank with close Pentagon connections) said a troop reduction was "under discussion, but at a pretty general level. If there is an outbreak of hostilities, 37,000 combat troops is not how it will be fought. It's a high-tech, cruise missile-type conflict now."

Some people, generally those who think that the current President Bush is a waste of space (i.e. most Democrats and supporters of former President "slick Willie" Clinton, not to mention many pusillanimous governments in Europe and elsewhere), have drawn an unfavourable contrast between the apparent desire of the US administration to treat the Iraqi regime with unwarranted severity whilst seeming to soft-pedal with the North Koreans. The 1994 agreement made by the then Clinton administration with North Korea, in order to defuse the last confrontation with that nation, was probably the best that could have been achieved at the time; I am not one of those who is prepared to say that the Clinton 'solution' was merely a brushing under the carpet of a continuing problem, even though it may have turned out that way. If the North Korean regime was less quixotic and xenophobic than it seems to be, the 1994 agreement could have formed the basis for a genuine and hopefully somewhat more prosperous future for the citizens of North Korea, with much of the financial aid for the reconstruction of the country coming, no doubt, from near-neighbours South Korea and Japan – both of whom would undoubtedly have been glad to pay the price if it meant a reduction in the danger posed to them by President Kim’s regime.

The danger is that North Korea might respond militarily, using the longish-range missiles it is known to possess and the nuclear warheads it is thought, and feared, to possess already. Whilst the US administration continues to endeavour to remain calm and statesmanlike when speaking publicly about North Korea, I personally have no doubt that there is a feeling of quiet desperation and helplessness in private and that similar feelings exist in both Seoul and Tokyo. What if the posturing and threats coming from Pyongyang are not mere 'bluff'? With most countries, one can count on a certain measure of enlightened self-interest to stay the hand of those who do not have the genuine interests of their citizens in mind, but such considerations do not seem to be at the forefront of the North Korean government's thinking. A recent report I read on North Korea, by one of the few 'western' (well, he in fact Russian, which makes his comments all the more startling I think) journalists permitted to visit the country recently, categorised the situation there as without doubt the most repressive and bizarre society he had ever witnessed. Some of my former colleagues (in a major international bank), who visited the country in the late-eighties and early-nineties on business, found their stays there to be without any doubt the most restricted and controlled they had experienced anywhere – people who, like me, were accustomed to visiting and living in some of the most repressive and poverty-stricken countries on the planet, with regimes varying from extreme left-wing to extreme right-wing. The country’s ruler, for he appears to be in sole effective charge, seems to have few scruples restricting the acts he might be prepared to order, the population seeming to be completely in thrall to his will.

So the need to tread warily in dealing with North Korea is, to me, clear. The second economic power in the world (Japan) and another significant economy (South Korea) could easily suffer major population loss if this situation escalates into a war in which nuclear weapons are at risk of being used. The risk is real and the responsibility on the world’s only superpower is great. I don’t agree with everything this US administration does (by any means), but their cautious approach in practise, however volatile their rhetoric sometimes sounds, seems to me to be reasonably re-assuring.

So what is the difference with Iraq? Saddam Hussein is a cruel and vicious despot, everyone seems to agree (even the pusillanimous nations I referred to above), who similarly has his citizens under almost total control. However, just for the moment, his posturing and strutting is probably a major danger only to his own country and those countries unfortunate enough to be within striking-range of the relatively short-range missiles he is thought still to possess. Horrific as the prospect is of chemical and/or biological weapons being used internally (again, let us not forget) or against other countries in the region (again, in some cases, too), he is not thought yet to have nuclear warheads to launch.

In other words, there may still be time to stop Saddam Hussein before he can engulf the region, and perhaps the wider world, in devastation. In the case of North Korea I suspect that it is too late for direct action against it to be contemplated, without the definite likelihood of devastating retaliatory strikes against countries in the region and perhaps farther afield, too. It is a horrible dilemma – as a Briton born some years after the end of World War II, our country found the will to struggle on alone largely through the will of one man (I do not think it necessary to name him, because most will know perfectly well to whom I refer), until the United States was propelled into the war against its isolationist instincts by the attack on Pearl Harbour. I do not relish the thought of another major war and would accept gratefully the results of any diplomatic breakthroughs which mean that Iraq and North Korea (and some other nations, too) can face the future with optimism for the genuine well-being of their peoples. Nor do I envy Bush, or indeed Blair, both of whom have the job of trying to achieve this. I do not believe either man is a warmonger, even if they quite naturally have as their primary role the protection and interests of their own countries. Enough said.

Another year begins. I hope everyone has a Peaceful, Happy and Successful 2003 and beyond.

A somewhat belated start to the year I’m afraid; I spent most of December trying to fight off a bad cold and sore throat, not forgetting headaches and nausea thrown in for variety. Fortunately, by about a week before Christmas I had more or less recovered and had an enjoyable time, specially as I enjoy entertaining groups of people at home with good food and wine. Our New Year here has begun cold – I estimate we had about –9C or –10C here last night .… brrrrr!

However, whether 2003 will be a particularly happy one, for people in a number of parts of the world, is somewhat doubtful in my view. The article immediately above this one deals with North Korea and Iraq and the problems they pose, in their different ways, to the security of their own citizens and their neighbours. And of course there is the continuing internecine struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians; I doubt if this problem will be 'solved' in most of our lifetimes.

The only glimmer of positive news so far as the success/prosperity aspect of wishing people a Happy New Year is concerned is the forecast by Morgan Stanley’s investment strategist, Byron Wien, that the US stockmarket will be up 25% by the summer. I’m not quite sure how I view his forecast that France will threaten to pull out of European Monetary Union during the year. Ah well …