What are the chances of a nuclear nightmare?

Trump's tweet-talk, loose lips, and big button amplify the risks over Korea and Iran 

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 January 2018

Donald Trump makes his acceptance speech in New York. Paco Anselmi/PA Images. All rights reserved.The risks of military confrontation in the Korean peninsula have been lightened in the short term make by the accord between Seoul and Pyongyang over the winter Olympics.  A possible joint parade by the North / South teams at the South Korean host city of Pyeongchang, one of the measures under discussion at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), would be rich in symbolism.

In parallel, the reopened hotline at the Panmunjom border, and especially the agreement to discuss border security, could help defuse tension over a longer period. In any crisis, either of these moves could help prevent the accidents, mistakes and even maverick behaviour (the AIM formula) which might otherwise escalate with tragic consequences.

But beyond this intra-Korean dimension, the core antipathy between Washington and Pyongyang remains at the heart of the perilous dispute. On one side, the Trump administration is adamant that Pyongyang must not become a nuclear-armed power and threaten the United States. On the other, the Kim Jong-un is certain that only possession of a nuclear force will prevent the US from carrying out its wish to that the US wants to terminate the regime.

A key factor is that, the Pyeongchang-related rapprochement aside, the timescale of potential military confrontation is shortening by the month. US intelligence agencies had been working on the assumption that North Korea was some years from presenting an acute challenge, but the sheer pace of nuclear and missile tests since Trump was elected have radically changed that. The expectation now is that North Korea is very likely to have a small but credible nuclear force before Trump goes for re-election in 2020. This increases the chances of a disastrous conflict in the next couple of years.

China, the one country with serious leverage over the Kim Jong-un regime, appears to share that view. Its has built camps just its side of the border with North Korea, in the expectation that a North Korean catastrophe will trigger mass refugee flows. One option considered is to move People's Liberation Army units across the Yalu river into North Korea to handle the crisis, though a poor road network and other logistal barriers could make this unfeasible. In any case, Beijing calculates that the risk of war is real, and is taking what would otherwise be extraordinary measures.

Another conundrum for its leadership, and a central part of this many-sided crisis, is Trump and the forces swirling around him. In this respect, three aspects of Washington's political and strategic environment are relevant. 

Wanted: diplomacy

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018

The first and most obvious is Donald Trump’s nuclear rhetoric, with its tweet-talk of obliterating North Korea and his button being much bigger then Kim Jong-un’s. The manner and medium are very far from Washington's traditional presidential pronouncements. It's true that Ronald Reagan said "we begin bombing [Russia] in five minutes” for a sound-check in 1984. It was way over the top but, when the non-broadcast excerpt was leaked, most people saw an element of misplaced humour in it. No one sees anything funny about Trump’s proclamations.

The second is Trump’s attitude to arms control. A new BASIC/ELN report, Changing Nuclear Weapons Policy in the Trump Era, analyses this in detail. Its author, Maxwell Dowman, says that Trump is “presiding over a crisis of European arms control, having failed to coordinate a NATO response to Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty, signed 30 years ago on December 1987, casting doubt on the future of New START and decertifying the Iran deal”.

Ineed, Trump’s attitude to Iran is relevant here. It is particularly worrying for western European states, given the long effort and careful coordination that went into achieving the nuclear agreement. The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain, meeting in Brussels on 11 January, called on Trump not to abandon the deal. If Washington unilaterally withdraws, it will be a further setback to arms control.

The third aspect is the US's new nuclear-posture review (NPR). A recent leak of its contents suggests a return to the thinking of the most dangerous years of the cold war, where fighting a nuclear war was actively contemplated.  

It is reasonable to point out that all seven nuclear states, leaving aside the US itself and North Korea, do seek to modernise their nuclear forces, although scores of other states want the world to move to a total ban through a nuclear-weapons convention. The US strategy, however, carries an extra danger, in that it is likely to include lowering the nuclear threshold – not just over first-use, but use against non-nuclear-armed states. This would mean deploying a long-range and highly accurate ballistic missile carrying a low-yield nuclear warhead, a weapon considered especially suited to limited nuclear use. 

This broader nuclear thinking reinforces the concern raised by Trump’s threat to destroy North Korea. There is a further, internal factor at work too: the militarisation – or just the deficit – of diplomacy. Trump's administration is unusual because of the president’s behaviour, but also because he is surrounded by retired generals in three key roles: chief-of-staff John Kelly, national-security advisor HR McMaster, and defense secretary James Mattis. In addition, the state department still hasn’t filled key diplomatic roles, and relative to this concentrated military outlook its influence is limited. 

At the very time when diplomacy should be taking precedence in dealing with Pyongyang and Tehran, it is is singularly weak within the US government system. Perhaps the retired generals, with their knowledge of the consequences of wars, will inject a note of caution in the White House. But a vacuum of diplomacy, Trump's temperament, escalating US military action across Africa and Asia, and the new nuclear strategy's likely focus, make such hopes look vain. There are too many red lights for comfort.

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