Kim Jong Il 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
North Korean story has gotten a lot of play in the international media in the
past few days, partly because Kim Jong-un is such an obvious misfit for the job
of “Great Successor.” What gives the story legs, however, are 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
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
60 years now North Korea has not attacked anybody. They can’t be all that
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 “destabilize” 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 Center in Rotterdam
is a long way from the secret underground lairs where James Bondstyle 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
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
“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
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 practice
is followed, publishing the full genetic sequence of the mutated virus in a
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 organizations, 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
There are more frightening things in the world than wonky North
Korean dictators.The writer is a London-based independent journalist
whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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