Just when it seemed like the “fire and fury” furor had passed and that other extreme news events like Hurricane Harvey had ushered in new news cycles to take our minds off of North Korea, the DPRK decided last night was a good time to launch a medium range ballistic missile over the northern part of Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. Regardless of who threatened whom last, it’s time to face some sobering truths about nuclear proliferation and the likelihood of nuclear war.
The back and forth between Trump and North Korea a few weeks back was frightening for everyone, with good reason. The thought of a rogue state like North Korea being able to nuke Guam, Alaska or Los Angeles hits home, especially if one buys into the line of thinking that Kim Jong-un is not a rational actor and is willing to bomb the U.S. despite the complete devastation the retaliation would bring, likely including his death and the destruction of his third generation dictatorial regime.
If one puts the onus of this dilemma squarely on Kim Jong-un, it’s easy to pretend that our problem is just this one rogue state and this one madman. Some have made solid arguments that Kim Jong-un is not as irrational an actor as our leaders and media like to portray. Given our regime-change wars in Iraq and Libya against dictators without nukes, having nukes to keep the U.S. from overthrowing you does make a certain kind of sense. But then, Kim Jong-un also claims to have started driving at the age of three and winning yacht races at the age of nine. So the truth about Kim Jong-un is probably someplace in the middle. He may be crazy, but his nuclear strategy may not be.
If one sees the major shift in the situation as coming from our own dear leader, Trump, when he deviated from his predecessors and started applying his characteristic bluster and hyperbole to the delicate North Korean problem, it feeds the “Do you really want Trump’s stubby little finger on the button?” narrative, leaving folks everywhere reaching for the valium. Kim Jong-un may have recently accelerated his country’s efforts but the development of their nuclear program was still par for the course for the DPRK. Trump’s bellicosity, meanwhile, quickly brought condemnation from many corners, often with an unhealthy ahistorical bent. Trump’s nuclear threats, while more public and more apparently unhinged than previous presidential nuclear threats, were not an exception in American history but a continuation of long-standing bipartisan American policy since that infamous day we nuked Hiroshima. Truman immediately threatened more strikes on Japan and then followed through with the bombing of Nagasaki. Truman and Eisenhower both threatened nuclear attacks in the Korean War, Eisenhower even advancing a policy that contemplated nuking China if it resumed support of conflict on the Korean peninsula. We all know John F. Kennedy wasn’t shy about threatening to push the button. Reagan believed that the Biblical apocalypse was coming in the form of a nuclear war that would smite God’s enemies (who were conveniently also America’s enemies). Even Barack Obama, who spoke often of arms reduction, hatched the trillion dollar plan to update our nuclear arsenal that is currently underway. While he may never have explicitly threatened an “enemy of the United States” with a nuclear attack, the implicit threat of his policy is clear.
There’s a fair argument, then, that neither the aggressive behavior of the North Korean regime nor the aggressive words from our accidental President have really changed the equation all that much. Regardless, that nagging fear of impending nuclear apocalypse hasn’t gone away, despite it having been deeply submerged in our collective psyche since the end of the Cold War. Why?
Recently, I’ve become addicted to the podcast Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. While his episode about nukes, “The Destroyer of Worlds,” is extremely powerful, the broader scope of the seemingly endless hours of listening on everything from the days of the Achaemenid Persian empire to the vast violence of the twentieth century has made one thing remarkably clear to me – when humanity invents a new technology for killing, it uses it. From the phalanx of the ancient Greeks to the machine guns, barbed wire and poison gas of WWI to Truman’s a-bomb, the history of war is a history of technological innovation. Whoever has the newest technology for killing always uses it and, usually, ends up winning.
Here’s where our current reality gets truly terrifying, shedding light on why our worst nuclear fears are not at all irrational. The biggest breakthrough in killing, the thermonuclear bomb, has never been used in an act of war. With apologies for oversimplifying the science, the thermonuclear bomb, or the hydrogen bomb, uses a nuclear fission reaction to generate nuclear fusion. The atomic bombs used against Japan were simple fission bombs generating explosions in the range of 15-20 kilotons of TNT. By comparison, the largest hydrogen bomb ever exploded, the “Tsar Bomba,” yielded the equivalent of 50 megatons of TNT. The difference between the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb is of such an order of magnitude that it may not be comprehensible to the average human mind. And when we talk about nukes today, we’re mostly talking about thermonuclear weapons. Only states in the early stages of nuclear weapons development, like North Korea, still have simple nuclear bombs in their arsenals.
I would love to suggest a positive vision for the future, a progressive plan to forever forestall the use of thermonuclear weapons or, for that matter, a workable plan from anywhere on the spectrum of political thought. I’m a supporter of any and every sensible measure that might prevent a nuclear war. But as the saying goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Sometimes humanity makes progress forward with nuclear non-proliferation agreements and even nuclear stockpile reduction. At other times, humanity moves backward developing its nuclear arsenals as the U.S. and North Korea are currently doing. But you really have to ask yourself this simple question: with the U.S., Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and now North Korea all armed with nukes, what are the chances that none of these states, or any others that may acquire these weapons in the future, will never find themselves backed into a corner with a leader who has an itchy button-finger?
The problem isn’t the United States. The problem isn’t North Korea. Thermonuclear war is coming because we are human. And we have a weapon that we haven’t used yet.