Nuclear North Korea

Nuclear North Korea.

What just went off in North Korea may have been between 50 and 100 kilotonnes. The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotonnes – the equivalent of 15,000 tonnes of TNT. The destructive potential of a weapon this size to both an individual area and the surrounding ecosystems constitutes an entirely different class of risk. Anything more than 50 nuclear weapons could trigger a nuclear winter. In that scenario, there would be so much soot and smoke thrown into the atmosphere by the burning cities that the entire planet could suffer an extreme drop in temperature. The larger the weapons – of which the 100-kilotonne ones certainly fit the equation – the more likely this outcome would be. This outcome could be delivered within a matter of minutes. The missile that Kim Jong-un recently flew over Japan, without prior warning and without Japanese consent, was fired at 5.58am. The Japanese public received a three-minute warning because there is 1,000km between them and North Korea. California is 9,000km away, which gives it a 30-minute warning. Seoul, at 55km, does not get a warning. Due to how short these notices could be, most of the superpowers keep hundreds of their nuclear weapons on high alert. This means they can launch to retaliate within 15 minutes or less.

To make matters even more dangerous, neither side in the current tension between North Korea and North America is utilising adequate safeguards to prevent accidents or miscalculations. On the one hand, the United States and their allies are practising war games, without the inclusion of opposing observers. Observers from countries that feel threatened by war games give them the information they need to know they are not about to be attacked. On the other hand, North Korea is busy firing missiles without announcement over countries without their consent. Even if the Security Council can agree on new tougher sanctions, it is unlikely that the North Korean regime would change direction and offer to give up their nuclear weapons – no matter how much the Security Council nuclear powers want it to do so. North Korea knows that India, Pakistan and Israel have already defied these powers and acquired their own nuclear weapons, despite international pleas for non-proliferation. North Korea wants to join that renegade club.

The real threat of North Korean proliferation is not the risk to cities in the US, but rather, the regional instability that comes with one side possessing weapons of mass destruction and disturbing the balance of power. If North Korea keeps their nuclear weapons, South Korea and Japan will also want their own atomic arsenals to act as a deterrent to Kim Jong-un. They will also want to expand and develop anti-ballistic missile defence systems, far beyond the ones that have already been deployed to the region. They will also seek much greater autonomy over their own defence, trying to avoid relying completely on the US. While this may make sense on one level, to China, the idea of countries like Japan, bristling with their own autonomous nuclear arsenal and hi-tech defence shields is absolutely intolerable. Unfortunately, this is where we are heading.

Credit: Alexander Gillespie, Professor of International Law at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, for AlJazeera 3 September 2017.

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