The recent lull in tensions with North Korea is apparently the “calm before the storm,” according to President Donald Trump. When asked to elaborate about “the storm” by reporters in a White House military dinner, he simply grinned and replied an inexplicable, “You’ll find out!” like a child waiting for his prank to be discovered. This ominous reply is perhaps a bluff for his equally unstable North Korean counterpart or just to cause anxiety for the journalists that the president despises. If the statement had any effect, it was to disturb one of the “great military people” standing next to the president, who was struggling to smile for the cameras through thoughts of an impending nuclear war.
But in international politics, actions are infinitely louder than words, and the quick military actions two weeks ago exemplify this. After President Trump gave a speech at the United Nations threatening to destroy completely North Korea, tremors resonated throughout the Asia-Pacific. Literally, a day after the speech, there were reports of tremors in the ground from North Korea, prompting speculations of yet another nuclear test in direct response to Trump. I remember reading the BBC, which reported of the activity after the U.N. spectacle, and thinking, “Wow, this guy is really asking for it.” The Pentagon evidently thought so too: in a “demonstration of U.S. resolve,” it sent B-1B Lancer bombers to fly over the region quickly after the initial reports. Though still outside of North Korean airspace, it was still the farthest north the Air Force has sent its planes in the 21st Century. It turns out that the vibrations were in fact of natural origins, according to experts in China and South Korea. Regardless, Pyongyang had already threatened to shoot the planes down.
This is not the closest we have been to a global nuclear conflict, not nearly so. In 1983, Soviet air force Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov prevented such a calamity through his scepticism and quick thinking. While on his midnight shift, the satellite detection system reported five intercontinental ballistic missiles originating from the U.S. hurtling toward the Soviet Union. Petrov was suspicious of the warning though, since the computer system was new and it did not make sense to him that Washington would send only a few missiles in a preemptive strike. Going with his gut, he decided that it was a false alarm and reported it so, averting a catastrophic Soviet response. An investigation later confirmed that the satellite system had mistaken rays of sunlight reflected from clouds for missiles. In an eery coincidence given the current North Korean conflict, Petrov recently passed away at age 77.
Thankfully, military intelligence has improved drastically since the Cold War, and false alarms, like the recent earthquake, can be easily confirmed. But with tensions so high, the human error and impulsiveness of our political elite may well put us on a path of no return, where a call of “False Alarm!” is ignored. The human and economic toll of a military conflict with North Korea would be simply unaffordable by the human race. Seoul, the capital of the 11th largest economy in the world, is a mere 45 minutes away from the border with the North and can be devastated by conventional weapons in a matter of hours. And even though North Korea does not have the resources to win a war, its nuclear weapons can easily end everything.
But Kim Jong-Un, like his father and grandfather, likes life and the luxury along with it. He loves his 200-foot-yacht, his women, $30 million alcohol and the occasional guest from the NBA. In fact, most analysts say that the nuclear weapons are simply to maintain his regime’s survival via blackmail. Trump’s unwillingness to do what his predecessors have done, which is to concede and talk to Pyongyang, is understandable. Being blackmailed is not great. But have his tough tweets and ominous warnings brought North Korea to even consider ending its nuclear programme? Instead, Trump’s spoken intention to decimate Kim’s dynasty has only incentivized Pyongyang to further refine its project, adding to the probability of a nuclear disaster. With each test, their technology, no matter how basic, is only getting better. And mixed signals from the White House is most definitely not helping to stop the progression.
If there is any comfort to be had, it is that there really is nothing we, as the public, can do. In our system, foreign affairs has been largely delegated to the executive branch of government and not the legislative. Once the dominoes have been set, we are entirely at the mercy of our leaders’ wits or lack thereof. Lt. Col. Petrov and his common sense saved the last century. We would be very lucky if there’s another Petrov to save this one.
Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Despatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.