George Bush reacted to North Korea’s first nuclear test by calling for “an immediate response from the United Nations security council”. The tests, he said, were “unacceptable”.
While no one on the left should support nuclear weapons, this is pure hypocrisy from the US - itself a nuclear superpower.
As George Monbiot pointed out in the Guardian earlier this year, the US and British governments fuel the nuclear arms race with their “refusal to make any moves towards disarmament, their threats of pre-emptive bombing and their development of new weapons systems”.
North Korea was designated part of the “axis of evil” in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, but - bogged down in the Middle East - the US appears unable to deal with North Korea by military means.
The strategy of the Bush administration has been to maintain the basic status quo in the region while gradually tightening the financial noose around North Korea’s neck.
While North Korea appears to be attempting to follow in the footsteps of China by repeating its liberalising economic reforms of the 1980s, the US is doing everything it can to stop this - freezing the accounts of North Korean banks around the world and ratcheting up the pressure on the North over its alleged counterfeiting and money laundering activities.
The response of the North Korean government has been to attempt to break this deadlock and force the US to make a deal with it. Thus the regime has pulled off progressively more shocking stunts - first announcing its nuclear programme, then testing ballistic missiles and now carrying out a nuclear test.
This may seem a high risk strategy, but the North Korean ruling class probably feels that it is playing to its strengths and speaking the only language that Washington understands.
It certainly doesn’t want to go the way of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein.
Behind the confrontation between North Korea and the US is the much bigger looming confrontation between China on the one hand and a US-Japan bloc on the other, with the Korean peninsula stuck uncomfortably in between.
Currently the economic integration between the two blocs is very deep, but geopolitical rivalry continues nonetheless, and North Korea is one of the flashpoints of this behind the scenes conflict.
China wants North Korea as a buffer state between it and the heavily armed US presence in South Korea and Japan. But while China and North Korea are ostensibly allies, China is more interested in maintaining the status quo than upsetting the US by defending the North Koreans.
It seems that the North Korean ruling class is also becoming worried by China’s increasing economic influence in its country and by its apparent preparations to take control of the country in the event of a regime crisis in the North. Korea’s rulers have thus decided that the best option is to follow the lead of Israel, India and Pakistan and have their own independent deterrent.
In the event of an escalation in this crisis it is the Korean people, North and South, who will pay the terrible price, as they did during the 1950-3 Korean War.
That is why we should be opposed not only to nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula but also to the general militarisation of north east Asia and the US policy of strangling North Korea.