Article - S032

Will nuclear winter follow Winter Olympics?

Published: 08 February 2018


Two recent events should have shaken the world to its core but, unsurprisingly, they didn’t.


The first was on January 28, when the keepers of the Doomsday Clock announced that the world is now only two minutes away from midnight. The second was on January 30, when US President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address.


Doomsday Clock


The Doomsday Clock is a symbol that represents how close the world is to global catastrophe as a result of nuclear war and/or climate change. Looking back on 2017, there’s little wonder the clock was moved forward by 30 seconds. One just has to contemplate the potential ramifications of President Trump’s double whammy assault on global security.


As if withdrawing from the Paris Accord was not sufficiently irresponsible in raising the risk of global catastrophe through climate change, Trump’s casual threat of carrying out a preventative strike on North Korea has placed the world on the brink of a new arms race and possibly even a full-scale nuclear war.


From the Doomsday Clock’s perspective, the nuclear threat is as serious now as it was at the height of the Cold War back in 1953.


Trump’s State of the Union address


In Trump’s State of the Union address, there were two particularly alarming statements:

“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland.”; and “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position.”


When read in the context of Trump’s tacit approval of a preventative strike on North Korea, the ever- increasing probability of nuclear war is given terrifying perspective.


Not to mention that just last week the Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, warned that North Korea could have the ability to hit the US with nuclear weapons in a 'handful of months'. This is sure to have strengthened Trump’s unwavering resolve on the North Korean issue.


Despite a bigger nuclear arsenal, the US has a lot more to lose


Adding to the standoff’s precariousness is the warmongering rhetoric being exchanged by the two nations’ outspoken leaders – the most recent of which boasted about ‘nuclear buttons’. 


It started with Kim Jong-un’s new year assurance to his people, “that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office. All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike.”


Twitter-happy Trump wasted no time in responding, “that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”


Trump’s retort, however, overlooks the fact that ‘target size’ holds far more relevance in this North Korea versus US standoff than ‘arsenal size’. For instance, when looking at cities with populations greater than 1 million, North Korea has one city (with 3,5 million people), while the United States has 10 cities (with a combined population of over 26 million).


To emphasise the point, North Korea could unleash far more destruction on the United States with just 10 nuclear missiles, than the United States could inflict on North Korea with 10, 100 or even 1 000 nuclear missiles.


Thus, even if the US comprehensively annihilated North Korea with its population of 25 million people, the US might suffer considerably more destruction in terms of infrastructure and population loss (raw numbers) – not to mention the consequential radioactive contamination of surrounding areas.


In essence, the US has a whole lot more to lose than North Korea in the event of a nuclear exchange.


Many may argue that the United States’ National Missile Defence system would neutralise North Korea’s incoming missiles before they reach the US mainland. However, according to the article ‘US missile defence system probably can’t stop North Korea’, the US government would be prudent not to bet their 10 biggest cities and 26 million American lives on this fairly ‘unreliable’ technology.


Trump’s administration is well aware of this, hence their determination to neutralise the North Korea’s projected nuclear threat before it is ever realised.


Korean curve ball


A surprise development this year, was the re-opening of diplomatic channels between South and North Korea for the first time in over two years, and the subsequent agreement that North Korea will participate in the South Korean-hosted 2018 Winter Olympic Games.


In a gesture of good faith, South Korea has suspended joint military exercises that are held almost weekly with the US and Japan.


This ‘curve ball’ shift in relations between South and North Korea was most likely not taken into account by the US military when running their wargames, but it will affect them dramatically. For instance, the strengthening of relations between the Koreas might be viewed as a weakening of the alliance between the US and South Korea.


The US would view this as a real threat to its power projection in East Asia, especially in terms of its economic influence across the region – a major concern for the US. Not only this, a diminished US naval presence in the South China Sea may prompt Japan to develop its own nuclear arsenal – another major concern for the US. 


On the other hand, the US military may see this budding relationship between the Koreas as an opportunity to launch a surgical strike on Kim’s nuclear assets. This would be based on the precarious assumption that Seoul might be temporarily at less risk of attack by North Korea, should it go to war with the US.


Another way out for the US?


As Trump recognises, the potential for North Korea to unleash nuclear terror across the US mainland increases exponentially every day. Thus, Trump would rather deal with Kim Jong-un before he has a single nuclear weapon capable of reaching the US, than wait for him to have 10, 100 or even 1000 weapons. The question is, however, have all diplomatic avenues been explored?


In his State of the Union address, Trump stated that: “Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons.” Ironically, he said this after vowing to rebuild America’s nuclear arsenal.


The truth is, Trump needs to consider whether the ‘magical moment’ he referred to in his speech is in fact ‘right now’. Trump would have nothing to lose by inviting Russia, China, India, Pakistan, France, the United Kingdom, Israel and North Korea to a fresh round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.


It is highly likely that all nine nuclear armed nations would agree to come together to discuss a clean slate Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or START IX (representing nine nations). Not only this, it would likely garner huge support from the world over, particularly those nations that have already signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.


The future of our world is at stake


With the Doomsday Clock now sitting at two minutes to midnight, time is of the essence. Trump’s administration should jump on this ‘magical moment’ and schedule the talks to commence immediately after the Winter Olympic Games.


There is no doubt that this diplomatic approach is far safer and more civilised than the US’s potential ‘bloody nose’ preventative strike. Not only this, it would also represent a huge leap forward for humankind in mitigating the unnecessary threats of nuclear war, nuclear winter and mass extinction.


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