Long before he was elected president, the danger of America’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of a short-tempered, ignorant vulgarian like Donald Trump was clear. With his finger on the button, the globe might be one childish slight away from nuclear war. Only eight months into his presidency, escalation between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the two most unstable nuclear-powered leaders on earth, is threatening to realize the worst of those fears.
The latest flare-up came early last week, when North Korea detonated its sixth and largest-yet nuclear device. The week before that, Pyongyang launched a non-nuclear missile which flew over northern Japan. It has tested several intercontinental ballistic missiles this year. President Trump did everything he could to escalate the tensions by threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” if they didn’t cease their provocations, and he sent out incendiary tweets including, “Talking is not the answer!” and, “They only understand one thing!”
Trump’s innuendo has suggested a coming military assault on North Korea, but much of his bombastic rhetoric has been undercut by his staff. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. is “never out of diplomatic solutions,” and Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon, said, “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die… I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
Little of this is consoling, though. Many South Koreans are actually more afraid of Trump than they are of the Kim regime, whose threats they largely tune out. Trump could still order a strike, either to prove that his threats are not idle or to boost his ratings. And if he chooses a military route, against his own administration’s apparent wishes, he would enjoy broad congressional support from hawks like Lindsey Graham.
Public opinion on North Korea is a hodgepodge of paranoia, contradictions and misinformation. As many as half of Americans apparently support war with North Korea, but less than 20 percent have “a great deal of confidence” in President Trump’s ability to navigate such a situation. Nearly as many Americans now label North Korea a “very serious threat” as they do ISIS. Seventy-seven percent believe North Korea can hit the US mainland with a nuclear weapon, despite extremely uncertain evidence for it.
The extent of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities is still largely unknown, though it’s regularly guessed at in the media by the usual anonymous intelligence sources. But as The Conversation notes, “Even if [Pyongyang] might (and only might) be able to fit a hydrogen bomb onto a missile, it still has to solve other stubborn technical problems, particularly how to design long-range missiles that can re-enter the atmosphere without burning up.”
All we know for sure is what North Korea has openly displayed, and while that’s plenty bad enough, they haven’t demonstrated an ability to nuke the US mainland. Even if they could, the risk of a direct attack is extremely small – such a move against the US or its allies would be suicide, and everybody involved knows it.
For the last 70 years, the guiding global nuclear philosophy has been deterrence. Small nations seek nuclear weapons to protect themselves from outside attack. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya were both overthrown by the US after surrendering their non-conventional weapons. Kim Jong Un has plenty of reason to be suspicious. His nuclear weapons are intended as a deterrent against a nation that, to this day, deploys nearly 40,000 troops near the North Korean border.
During the Korean War, the US military slaughtered as much as 20 percent of the North Korean population. Out of that historic atrocity emerged the infamous cult regime of the Kim family, and hatred of the United States has been something of a national religion ever since. Despite some periods of normalization, North Korea’s departure from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 and a propaganda war carried out by President Obama caused relations to completely disintegrate.
Contrary to Trump’s insistence that talking hasn’t worked, we have hardly talked with North Korea at all in recent years. Pyongyang has, in fact, suggested it may be willing to put its nuclear weapons on the negotiating table, but it wants the US to cease its own hostility and nuclear threat. Such a deal is laughable to the American media and military establishment, so to them, it may as well be as though North Korea never offered anything.
In fact, the media may be the most dangerous element of the whole equation. Trump lives for their praise and adoration, and the surest way he’s found to get it from them is to bomb people. Their poor presentation of the issue is reflected in public opinion. And much of the pundit class is already salivating for war: Last week, the New York Post printed the genocidal line, “Better a million dead North Koreans than a thousand dead Americans.”
Soberer analysts, for now, seem to think that the threat of war is low. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are doing for them exactly what they were intended to do: keeping the US at bay. But Trump is hot-tempered, unpredictable, and hates being told what to do. He has displayed stunning ignorance on some of the basics of nuclear weapons. If he continues on his course of belligerent antagonism, Pyongyang will likely only accelerate its nuclear program.
It is a difficult, and perhaps impossible, situation. The only solution any moral person can accept, however, is a non-nuclear one. For once, Steve Bannon is right: they got us. Even a conventional military strike would likely lead to millions dead in North Korea, South Korea, and perhaps even into Japan, China, Russia, and elsewhere. A nuclear first strike would be the greatest war crime in history – and possibly the last.
Hopefully, we never have to learn the extent of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. But we do know what ours are, and they’re sufficient to wipe human civilization from every corner of the globe. And North Korea, for all its bluster, has not invaded another country in over 60 years. Not only does the US routinely attack other sovereign nations, we are the only country in history to actually use an atomic bomb against an enemy.
Every single nuclear warhead on earth, no matter whose hands it’s in, is potentially cataclysmic. If either Washington or Pyongyang commit a real act of war, the world will be in grave peril. We need a cool head to de-escalate with North Korea, someone who is willing to make reasonable concessions, and right now we don’t have it. There’s a good reason South Koreans are more anxious about the madman overseas than the madman to their north.