Nuking the English language

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will use its nuclear arsenal if attacked by the United States and South Korea, DPRK ambassador to Cuba Kwon Sung Chol said Friday,” reported the Chinese news site Xinhua on August 27. Kwon added, “If Washington and Seoul try to create a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, we will respond with a holy war on the basis of our nuclear deterrent forces.”

What’s unusual about this warning? Perhaps you find the invocation of holy war incongruous since, at best, the North Korean government only tolerates certain religious groups. (Its idea of religion, you’ll recall, is a decidedly unholy admixture of the cult of the Kim dynasty’s personality and juche, a secular doctrine that combines will with self-reliance.)

In fact, the discordant note sounded by Ambassador Kwon is more subtle. In a recent post at the Economist’s Language blog, the author, known only as T.C., sheds some light.

Britain is currently pondering whether to replace its nuclear-armed Trident submarines. It is striking that virtually every British media outlet follows the government line in talking delicately about the nation’s “nuclear deterrent”, rather than “nuclear weapons”. You might expect it from the right-wing Daily Telegraph, but the leftie New Statesman uses it too, even while bashing the programme for not being sufficiently independent of the United States.

In other words, “our nuclear deterrent” is a euphemism that facilitates “talking delicately” about nuclear weapons. It well serves its intended purpose: casting nuclear weapons in a purely defensive light. However, the United States, for example, has never forsworn first use of nuclear weapons. Not to mention that even if nuclear weapons were retained purely for defensive purposes, their very possession by a state invites development by other states for their defense (ostensibly), as well. Meanwhile, North Korea’s use of the term is a sign that we shouldn’t underestimate how media-savvy NORK’s representatives can be.

Along with a euphemism’s effectiveness hiding the true meaning of a word, the measure of its success lies in how difficult it is to spot. While the American disarmament community doesn’t fall into the same trap of using the term as the New Statesman did, the implications of “our nuclear deterrent” succeeded in escaping me until recently. Furthermore, my efforts to trace its origins have been unsuccessful, though one can’t help but suspect it’s the work of a communications firm.

In other words “nuclear deterrent” is what the good guys retain for emergencies; “nuclear weapons” are what the bad guys wield — or seek to. The former word blunts the impact of the latter.

Nuclear advocates have taken another term from the field of nuclear weapons and not only turned it on its head, but appropriated the concept for their own use. Though linguistically a negative, “nonproliferation” has long been a word that offers us hope for a safer future. It’s memorialized, of course, in the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has been instrumental in keeping nuclear war at bay since it was ratified. But somewhere along the way the word “nonproliferation” was hijacked. It’s come to mean, for starters, keeping nuclear weapons, materials, and know-how from states that the Western world has deemed unstable, or more to the point, irrational (read Muslim).

Of course, nobody wants another nuclear-armed state like Pakistan, with its compromised army and intelligence agency, or North Korea, ruled by a tyrant. Or, for that matter, an Israel that’s irrational when it comes to the subject of Islam.

But when it comes to reciprocity, nuclear advocates now give only a cursory nod to the section of the NPT that calls for nuclear disarmament (divesting yourself of nuclear weapons as opposed to nonproliferation, stopping the spread). However famously nebulous, it reads in part: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” Meanwhile, nuclear advocates are impervious to the claim that disarmament is what provides nuclear states with credibility when calling upon states with aspirations to nuclear weapons to abandon such dreams.

To others (such as myself), substantive — and nuclear modernization-free — disarmament measures demonstrate leadership in an international campaign to make the world free of nuclear weapons. But to American nuclear hawks, the military, not to mention the nuclear-weapons program itself, is all the credibility that the United States needs to halt nuclear powers-in-waiting in their tracks.

In other words, nonproliferation has come to mean checking the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that don’t have them while we get to keep ours (on a reduced scale but with vastly increased funding for modernization).

Even worse, a state like Iran that seems to be be seeking the means to develop a nuclear weapon — if not the actual weapon — finds itself in the sights of a West all too willing to use nonproliferation as a pretext to make said state’s nuclear facilities the bulls eye for an air attack.