By Trevor Busch
Perhaps it has been fitting that the recent nuclear sabre-rattling between the United States and North Korea has taken place in August, and not very far from the twin Japanese cities that were wiped out in atomic firestorms in that month in the summer of 1945.
In many ways, the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the modern nuclear age, and it is remarkable that since those fateful days in early August 1945, the world has come close to the brink of nuclear annihilation, but no one has ever actually pushed the so-called “button” to send ballistic missiles sailing serenely through the heavens, ready to rain fire and destruction on their respective targets.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki should still stand as warnings about the danger that nuclear weapons present to all of us as global citizens, but like many things we attempt to immortalize so they are not forgotten, lessons to be learned by ensuing generations — all the same, more often than not, our collective memories fade and the mistakes of the past rear their heads with a troubling frequency.
During the Cold War, the arms race that escalated to unprecedented heights, as both competing superpowers grappled with the other to obtain ever-larger stockpiles of warheads, was a frightening experience for anyone who lived through that era. On more than one occasion, it very nearly ended in a full-scale nuclear exchange between both, which at best would have ushered in a post-apocalyptic nightmare, at worst — the very extinction of the species.
But end it did, and without the hellfire of a thermonuclear airburst over a major population centre. As the former Soviet Union collapsed into revolution and chaos in the early 1990s, much of the world sighed in relief that the ever-present nuclear scimitar that had been perched over their heads for 50 years had to a large degree miraculously disappeared, almost overnight.
The only problem with that notion, as it turned out, was that when it comes to nuclear security, the fall of the Soviet Union was hardly the watershed moment so many still believe it to be. While the high-level threat of state-sponsored nuclear war took a decided body blow, it would turn out to be banner days ahead for nuclear proliferation. The power vacuum created when the Soviets withdrew from new republics — who found themselves to be nuclear powers by default — or when lax security collapsed around nuclear storage facilities and other locations, created the conditions ripe for exploitation by unseemly groups, terrorists, and third-rate powers bent on punching above their weight class. There is still continued speculation about how much nuclear material might have been lost, sold, or stolen, or just who might be out there in possession of a nuclear device — primitive or otherwise — biding their time before detonation. The Russians deny it, and analysts and inspectors claim to have disproved it — but the rumours and whispers seem too persistent for there not to have been some truth to the allegations.
And since that time, at least two powers have joined the nuclear club — Pakistan, and most recently, North Korea. In the virtual melee that now exists in global politics, mixed with a healthy dose of terrorism, and all nations existing in what was once termed as “non-aligned” status, nuclear proliferation is a danger that will one day be proved paramount — because in the 21st century, it is not a question of if a nuclear device will be deployed by a nation, terrorist group, or other power, but when and how. The technology to create nuclear weapons is now almost 75 years old — given the right materials, a first-year nuclear physics student could probably build a rudimentary weapon — and it is only a matter of time before more and more groups and nations acquire the materials and the know-how.
Some might suggest nostalgia about the Cold War to be in poor taste, and to be fair, there’s nothing exactly heart-warming about an ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. Still, there was something familiar and easily understandable about an us-versus-them mentality, where powers faced off along clearly-defined lines of morality, economics and politics. The world that replaced it — the post-Soviet world — held none of those certainties. Just where the next enemy would arise, and how powerful they would be, was anyone’s guess. Case in point: Sept. 11, 2001.
Which brings us to our present situation with North Korea. The globe’s last true Stalinist-style Communist government, complete with mandatory spontaneous celebrations, a cult of personality around the ruling family, and grand military blustering — is really a nation of brow-beaten and sometimes starving citizenry, suffering under crippling poverty, and all tightly controlled by a totalitarian regime that broaches no criticism and rules with an iron fist.
In the West, people are sometimes baffled by North Korea and the seemingly unflinching support of the population for much of what the regime stands for. But it really shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. If access to all outside information was restricted from birth and replaced only with propaganda dispensed by the regime, then propaganda becomes truth — there is no other alternative to the party line. Should we really be so surprised, then, that people believe what we consider to be outrageous when there is no alternative to the lie? Orwell understood this principle: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
At the same time, it is dangerous to dismiss the threats of North Korea as simply the insane babblings of an addled dictator fed on fallacious myths about his family and the destiny of the nation. We have to remember that when we hear these pronouncements and threats, the North Koreans and their leadership probably believe every word of it, no matter how out of touch with reality. There’s a difference between the children of the West, who know the power of a question, and the children of North Korea, who have never been equipped to even ask. Blind allegiance based on propaganda might be distasteful and abhorrent to us, but it should not be underestimated.
Over the past week, hard on the heels of the North Koreans successfully testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could conceivably reach portions of U.S. soil carrying a Made-in-Korea nuclear payload, the world has stepped a lot closer to the brink of nuclear war than it has for many decades. While the threats and rhetoric issuing from Pyongyang are nothing new, President Donald Trump’s willingness to escalate the war of words over a potential nuclear exchange have heightened tensions in a region usually brimming over with problems, and even the Chinese — one of North Korea’s few allies — was asking both powers to back away from the brink.
To say that Trump’s comments have been unstatesmenlike — let alone un-presidential — would be an understatement. Trump appears to be attempting to boost flagging approval ratings at home with his core supporters by engaging in a war of increasingly-threatening words with North Korea. While this conduct should be regarded as repulsive enough — usually delivered through the new White House press corps, otherwise known as Twitter updates — destabilizing a region’s security to gain a few points at home by failing to restrain one’s flapping gums is hardly what anyone wants from the inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. While the North Korean threat is real, and needs to be confronted with a measured approach that may or may not culminate in military action, threatening fire and brimstone from the heavens like an itinerant southern preacher will only push the North Koreans closer to launching a weapon, not the opposite.
And while the Americans probably have the military technology to prevent any missile strike from reaching U.S. soil, what about the potential of destruction for U.S. allies in the region, such as South Korea and Japan, much closer to the North Korean frontier? Trump’s rhetoric might seem far removed for the average American, but for a citizen of Seoul or Tokyo staring down the business end of a North Korean missile with a megaton payload? Fair to say some might appreciate more conciliation rather than bombastic pomposity.
The problem with playing the game of nuclear brinkmanship is that when one side chooses to blink no longer, millions could potentially die. Trump appears to be approaching the situation as though he were conducting a hostile takeover on Wall Street, not threatening to rain nuclear fallout all over the Korean peninsula.
When the situation escalates to the point of no return — which it may still yet — the outcome won’t be counted in failed business ventures and bankruptcies, but in countless human lives.