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President Donald Trump’s threats to pre-emptively strike North Korea continue to alarm citizens as well as international diplomats and military personnel around the world. His tweets indicate the U.S. commander-in-chief could behave angrily or vengefully without using a level head. Now that he has proclaimed that his finger is on the nuclear trigger, ready to destroy North Korea, what can ordinary citizens and diplomats do to calm the situation?
There is not enough time and the technology is underdeveloped to erect space-based lasers and reliable ballistic missile defence systems to protect ourselves against a nuclear attack from North Korea.
Meanwhile, Trump’s latest threat to hit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” has led experts to talk more urgently about the effects of a limited nuclear war on the global environment and climate.
The most-studied scenario has been a hypothetical, limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan, involving 100 Hiroshima-sized warheads. Fires would throw millions of tons of soot into the atmosphere, blocking the sun and causing a worldwide temperature drop of at least 1.25 Celsius degrees. An estimated 20 million people would die within a week from the direct effects, while an estimated two billion would be at risk of dying by famine over the next decade due to a huge drop in the production of grain.
North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller than Pakistan’s. The CIA estimates there could be about 60 nuclear weapons cached around the country in underground, hardened silos.
Despite Trump’s threats, any U.S.-led decapitation of the leadership surrounding North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, even with the utter destruction of his country’s capital Pyongyang, could not assuredly destroy the North’s hidden nuclear arsenal.
Experts also worry a large-scale conventional war would destroy Seoul, South Korea’s capital, and send millions of refugees out of the Korean peninsula throughout Asia.
Rather than shrug our shoulders and accept the reality of the 33-year-old Supreme Leader ruling a nuclear-armed state, we should urge diplomats around the world to shore up the nuclear non-proliferation regime, revive the United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament, jump-start negotiations toward a treaty banning fissile material production, and sign the newly-negotiated UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
But reviving diplomatic negotiations will not be enough.
We need to speak more urgently about the dangers of placing our faith in nuclear deterrence, about mistakenly believing our sides’ nuclear weapons will deter conventional warfare and about our faulty perception that brandishing nuclear weapons means nuclear war will never be fought. Limited nuclear war is a burgeoning possibility, although even limited use would threaten the entire globe’s environment and Earth’s survival.
Trump’s comments, while playing on a golf course, about possibly raining death and destruction on North Korea, are yet another indication that he perceives his power to unleash nuclear devastation as very important to him. But many world leaders share that kind of perception. To continue to allow the preservation — indeed, the expensive modernization — of the strategic nuclear weapons of China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. could encourage states without nuclear weapons to seek them for their own deterrent purposes, leading to further nuclear proliferation and a growing possibility of accidental or even calculated use.
The non-nuclear countries — including those like Canada that are in military alliances with countries that have nukes — must press for more stigmatization of the nuclear-have states’ reliance on nuclear deterrence.
Diplomats and high-level UN representatives and state parties from all over Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America might join forces to press Chinese officials to rein in Kim.
We must also criticize countries, including Canada, that voted against the UN’s new ban treaty. (So far 122 have voted in favour).
We should harshly condemn world leaders like Trump and Kim who dare to taunt each other with possible nuclear use. After only eight months in office, Trump has already threatened to use nuclear weapons long before all options have been put on the table. Forebodingly, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, says a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea may be necessary if its threat reaches a level that “requires action.”
In other comments, Tillerson said, “All options are on the table.” If that’s the case, one peaceful option would be to work harder toward the total denuclearization and demilitarization of the Korean peninsula. A few middle powers like Canada could offer to deploy peacekeeping troops, perhaps as part of a larger UN rapid reaction capability.
Clearly a nuanced, comprehensive deal laden with economic incentives and disincentives, including long-term security guarantees, is needed along with face-saving measures for all sides. Perhaps Kim might grudgingly accept onto his soil Chinese officials who temporarily take on the UN’s atomic inspection role. Perhaps British, Cuban or Irish diplomats might deal with the U.S. administration’s threats to go to the brink.
Experienced diplomats have known since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis about how to wield carrots and sticks, how to avoid climbing the ladder of nuclear escalation and how to refrain from overtly threatening to use the nuclear option. Rather than watch in incredulous disbelief as Trump and Kim rush headlong toward limited nuclear war based on their ignorance, misunderstandings and misperceptions, it’s time for all world leaders to promise to refrain from threatening nuclear first-use.
Erika Simpson is an associate professor of international politics at Western University. This is excerpted from her commentary prepared for working groups at the 62nd Pugwash Conference on Science & World Affairs on “Confronting New Nuclear Dangers” on Aug. 25-29 in Astana, Kazakhstan.
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