The doomsday clock, maintained by the Science and Security Board of American Scientists since 1947, hypothetically denotes the impending time from global nuclear catastrophe. The closer the minute hand is to midnight, the greater the danger of Armageddon. Re-set every year-end, in 2017 the clock is two and a half minutes from midnight — the closest since the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis at the height of the Cold War. The reason is the growing danger of nuclear war between North Korea and the US ever since the election of President Trump. Given the increasing confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang, the slightest miscalculation or mishap by either side could escalate into nuclear war. Therefore, it is very likely that the clock will be moved further towards midnight next year, taking the world even closer to Doomsday.
Since its first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea has produced about 20 nuclear warheads. It has also been testing several missile delivery systems, the latest being of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that can reach the continental US, apart from missiles that can target American allies, South Korea and Japan. Despite international opprobrium and several UN Security Council sanctions, the Kim Jong Un regime remains undeterred.
From the US perspective, the nuclear threat from North Korea is particularly dangerous because it is considered to be a “rogue” state led by an “unstable” and “unpredictable” leader. America, therefore, demands that North Korea disarm and rollback its nuclear capabilities. International sanctions are not only meant to “punish” North Korea for its behaviour but also to force it to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. Support has also been sought from China and Russia in view of their close relations with North Korea. While these countries have obliged, joining the Security Council’s consensus on sanctions and cutting back on their bilateral economic relations, Pyongyang has refused to back down. A recent UN team’s visit to North Korea led by Under-Secretary General Feltman also failed to make any headway.
In this precarious stand-off, the Americans are not without blame either. Trump has made frivolous and reckless statements like US nuclear weapons being “locked and loaded” and threatening to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea. In a most unprecedented display of hubris, Trump used the UN as a platform to threaten that he would “totally destroy” North Korea. Such irresponsible remarks have generated concerns in the US itself, with Congress seriously questioning whether Trump can be trusted with nuclear weapons and threatening to take away his control over these weapons.
However, even more responsible people like National Security Adviser McMaster and Pentagon Generals have been advocating use of force and talking of preemptive strikes. More dangerously, some of them even think that the US can fight and win a nuclear exchange with North Korea. This is delusional thinking. Even a conventional war will cause casualties just for American equal to the losses in World War I, according to former US Defence Secretary William Perry. Moreover, it would be virtually impossible to ensure that a conventional war will not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons, perhaps by both sides. Given the much larger American arsenal, North Korea would be totally destroyed but so too will South Korea and now, given Pyongyang’s ICBM capability, several American cities may be vaporised as well. Moreover, nuclear radiation which will affect not just the region but the entire world due to wind direction and climate change. So, while a moron like Trump can brag about “fire and fury”, his generals should know better what nuclear weapons use would entail.
The Clinton administration had pursued a much more responsible policy and signed an “Agreed Framework” in 1994 wherein Pyongyang undertook to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear programme in exchange for normalisation of relations with the US, including the construction of two light water nuclear power reactors in North Korea by a US-led consortium. However, due to opposition by the Republicans in Congress, the US reneged on its commitments and the deal broke down in 2002. Pyongyang reacted by withdrawing from the Non-proliferation Treaty in 2003. Nevertheless, diplomatic efforts continued through the six-party talks (US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China), with North Korea pledging in 2003 to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. However, the talks broke down over disagreements regarding verification procedures.
Even so, the North Koreans made an attempt to gain American recognition of their defacto nuclear weapons but not testing a weapon by inviting American scientists to visit their nuclear facilities. While the evidence was convincing, the US security establishment rejected this assessment. Worse, Washington continued to isolate North Korea, calling for regime change and imposing multiple sanctions along with its allies, apart from conducting joint military exercises and strengthening American military bases armed with nuclear weapons and missiles.
In these circumstances, there is a method in Pyongyang’s madness. The acquisition of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems are seen as necessary for credible deterrence. The examples of what happened to Iraq, Libya and Syria, which were also accused of pursuing clandestine nuclear weapons programmes, further impacted on North Korean thinking. Also, American double standards in enlisting India as a strategic partner, despite its proliferation record, no doubt encouraged Pyongyang that eventually its nuclear status will also be accepted.
Given this fait accompli, the question is how will the international community avoid the growing danger of nuclear war? The only answer is through dialogue as is being advocated by China and Russia among others. But the American position that such a dialogue must bring about a rollback of North Korean nuclear capability is a non-starter. Clearly, Kim’s regime will not agree to dismantle its strategic capabilities as it believes this will undermine its survival. The only option then is an agreement that will ensure North Korean restraint and freeze further development in return for guarantees respecting its security interests. But Trump and his allies are not yet ready for such a compromise. Meanwhile, the doomsday clock is ticking closer to catastrophe.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2017.
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