North Korea fires missiles amid coronavirus pandemic

Tokyo says Pyongyang appeared to have fired a missile, which landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone waters.

The United States and China have repeatedly appealed for North Korea to return to talks on ending its nuclear and missile programmes [File: Lee Jin-man/AP]
The United States and China have repeatedly appealed for North Korea to return to talks on ending its nuclear and missile programmes [File: Lee Jin-man/AP]

North Korea fired two projectiles that appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula, South Korea’s military said on Saturday, after what analysts said was a show of confidence during the coronavirus pandemic by announcing an April legislature session.

The launch follows two earlier this month, when North Korea launched short-range missiles and multiple projectiles, according to South Korea’s military, drawing US and Chinese appeals for Pyongyang to return to talks on ending its nuclear and missile programmes.

The suspected missiles were fired from North Pyongan province, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said. The province is above Pyongyang on the northwest corner of the Korean peninsula, bordering China.


Japan’s coast guard said on Saturday that North Korea appeared to have fired a missile, which landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone waters.

Earlier on Saturday, North Korea announced it will hold in April a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, its rubber-stamp legislature, in Pyongyang, which analysts had said would involve gathering almost 700 of the country’s leaders in one spot as the coronavirus spreads worldwide.

North Korea: strategy shift expected after nuclear talks stall

“If it goes ahead, it would be the ultimate show of [North Korea’s] confidence in managing the coronavirus situation,” Rachel Minyoung Lee, of the North Korea monitoring website NK News, said on Twitter this week.

North Korea has not reported any confirmed cases of the new coronavirus that was first detected in China late last year, though a top United States military official said last week he is “fairly certain” there were infections in North Korea.

State media KCNA also said on Saturday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guided an artillery fire competition between combined units of the North Korean army on Friday, displaying photos of him watching with high-ranking military officers, all unmasked.

It was unclear whether Saturday’s launch was part of the drill.

Amid Breakdown In Nuclear Talks, North Korea Threatens U.S. With ‘Christmas Gift’

A woman watches a news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Lee Jin-man/AP

In what could be a reference to a new missile test, North Korea is threatening to give the U.S. a “Christmas gift” unless Washington abides by an end-of-year deadline set by Pyongyang for concessions in exchange for a possible deal to curb its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea accused the U.S. of stalling on diplomatic efforts between the two countries because of the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

“The dialogue touted by the U.S. is, in essence, nothing but a foolish trick hatched to keep [North Korea] bound to dialogue and use it in favor of the political situation and election in the U.S.,” the statement from Ri Thae Song, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, said.

The statement, published in North Korean state media on Tuesday, said it was up to Washington “what Christmas gift it will select to get.” It did not clarify what the statement meant.

However, on July 4, 2017, Kim successfully carried out North Korea’s first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. According to The Associated Press, he described it at the time as part of a “package of gifts” on the U.S. Independence Day holiday.

Speaking on Tuesday, President Trump said he hoped that Kim would get rid of his country’s nuclear weapons. Kim “likes sending rockets up, doesn’t he? … That’s why I call him Rocket Man,” the president said at a NATO meeting in London, reprising a pejorative he first used for Kim during a period of especially tense relations that began in 2017.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump met in June inside the Demilitarized Zone separating South and North Korea.

Getty Images

The two leaders first met in June 2018 in Singapore. They expressed mutual admiration, and Trump announced that Kim had agreed in principle to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, a second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February ended abruptly, with Kim and Trump leaving with no agreement.

Since then, working-level talks aimed at resolving the nuclear issue have all but broken down. As NPR’s Anthony Kuhn has reported, the basic disagreement is this: “The U.S. wants North Korea to give up its nukes first, and North Korea wants the U.S. to lift sanctions first.”

In May, after news that North Korea tested new ballistic weapons, Trump said, “North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me.” He expressed “confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.” Trump made the statement after his national security adviser at the time, John Bolton, warned that the tests violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

In recent weeks, senior State Department officials have downplayed the seriousness of North Korea’s year-end deadline. For example, special envoy on North Korea Stephen Biegun told lawmakers last month that “we do not have a year-end deadline.” He described it as an “artificial deadline set by the North Koreans, and unfortunately, it’s a deadline that they’ve set upon themselves now.”

The statement from Ri said North Korea “has heard more than enough dialogue rhetoric raised by the U.S. whenever it is driven into a tight corner. So, no one will lend an ear to the U.S. any longer.”

Last week, North Korea fired two projectiles as it tested what it called a “super-large multiple-rocket launcher,” as the BBC reported. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described them as ballistic missiles, but North Korean state media mocked him, saying Japan “may see what a real ballistic missile is in the not-distant future.”

Kim has warned that if the U.S. does not come up with a more attractive offer to North Korea by the end of the year, his country will adopt a policy he’s calling the “new way.”

While it’s not clear what he means exactly, a researcher at a think tank affiliated with South Korea’s intelligence services recently told Kuhn that the options are worrying. Choi Yong-hwan, from the Institute for National Security Strategy, said, “North Korea may choose to strengthen its nuclear capabilities, deploy nuclear weapons they already have or work on completing advanced missile technologies they haven’t completed yet.”

Kim Jong Un tells N. Korea military to keep “full-combat posture” after second missile launch in week

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has told his military to maintain a “full-combat posture” as tensions continue to rise with the U.S. His order follows the firing of three missiles Thursday, the second missile launch in a week.

North Korea says the test was part of its regular military training. South Korea claims they may be part of a new weapons system. As North Korean missile tests go, CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer says Thursday’s was less a show of force than an attempt to grab attention.

North Korean state media released pictures Friday morning showing a gleeful Kim apparently watching those missile launches — the second such drill he had observed in five days.

North Korea’s state media avoided specifying what the weapons were, but the U.S. military says they were three short-range ballistic missiles.


President Trump said it was not enough to ruin his relationship with Kim Jung Un.

“They were smaller missiles, they’re short range missiles,” President Trump said. “Nobody’s happy about it, but we’re taking a good look and we’ll see, we’ll see. The relationship continues, but we’ll see what happens.”

But the missile launches of the past week have been the first since 2017, and a sure sign that Kim is becoming frustrated after the last summit with President Trump collapsed.

Analyst Thomas Sanderson says the launches won’t be enough of a provocation to derail future talks.

“They certainly are not going to prevent another summit; it’s not as if it is an intercontinental range missile and it’s not the testing of a nuclear warhead,” Sanderson said. “These are the two elements that Kim Jong Un promised he would put a moratorium on.”

Technically that moratorium still holds, but Kim has already warned the U.S. to change its position, or there will be no third summit with Mr. Trump.

Ratcheting up tensions between the countries even further, the U.S. revealed Thursday that it had seized a huge North Korean cargo ship off the coast of Indonesia.

The 17,000 ton ship, called the “Wise Honest,” was caught carrying North Korean coal for export — in direct defiance of international sanctions. Its seizure shows U.S. resolve to cut off North Korean trade that might fund its nuclear program.

Trump Walks Away From North Korea Nuclear Talks

A historic summit to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula ended without an agreement Thursday, after talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un fell apart. Their second summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, failed after Kim Jong Un demanded that the U.S. lift all sanctions on North Korea in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon enrichment facility — an important North Korean nuclear site. We speak with Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War.


AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Hanoi, Vietnam, where talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un came to an abrupt end Thursday, after the leaders failed to reach a denuclearization agreement. Their second summit meeting fell apart over Kim Jong-un’s demand the U.S. lift all sanctions on North Korea. This is President Trump speaking at a news conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I could have done a deal today, but it would have been a deal that wouldn’t have been a deal that—it would have been something that I wouldn’t have been happy about, Mike would not have been happy about. We had some pretty big options, but we just felt it wasn’t appropriate. And we really want to do it right.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump said Kim had demanded sanctions be lifted in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon enrichment facility, an important North Korean nuclear site. During the news press conference, Trump was questioned by David Sanger of The New York Times.

DAVID SANGER: So, can you just give us a little more detail? Did you get into the question of actually dismantling the Yongbyon complex?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I did. Yes, absolutely.

DAVID SANGER: And does he seem willing, ultimately—


DAVID SANGER: —to take all of that out?


DAVID SANGER: He does? He just wants all the sanctions off first, before—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He would do that, but he wants the sanctions for that. And as you know, there’s plenty left after that. And I just felt it wasn’t good. Mike and I spent a long time negotiating and talking about it to ourselves. And just I felt that that particular—as you know, that facility, while very big, it wasn’t enough to do what we were doing.

DAVID SANGER: So he was willing to do Yongbyon, but you wanted more than that, I assume, including—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had a have more than that, yeah. We had to have more than that—

DAVID SANGER: And so, you needed both—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: —because there are other things that you haven’t talked about, that you haven’t written about, that we found and we have to have, that was done a long time ago but the people didn’t know about.

DAVID SANGER: Including the uranium—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And we brought—yeah.

DAVID SANGER: Including the second uranium enrichment plant.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Exactly. And we brought many, many points up that I think they were surprised that we knew. But we had to do more than just the one level, because if we did the one level and we gave up all of that leverage, that’s been—taken a long time to build—

DAVID SANGER: So, he was—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And I want to take—by the way—

DAVID SANGER: He was not willing to take out that second—that second—

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: David, I want to take off the sanctions so badly, because I want that country to grow. That country has got such potential. But they have to give up more. We could have done that deal.

AMY GOODMAN: The working lunch was canceled between the two leaders. The summit’s collapse comes just days after House Democrats introduced a resolution to end the Korean War, after nearly 70 years of conflict. Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna, who introduced the resolution, said in a statement, “Historic engagement between South and North Korea has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to formally end this war. … President Trump must not squander this rare chance for peace,” he said.

Well, for more, we turn to Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War. She’s in Hanoi, Vietnam, for the summit.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Christine. Can you respond to the collapse of the summit?

CHRISTINE AHN: Hi, Amy. Well, it’s obviously a very sad day for 80 million Korean people around the world, especially on the peninsula, as we’ve been long waiting—67 years—for the U.S. and North Korea to declare an end to the Korean War. And many people, many pundits, many—I think President Moon—were expecting a breakthrough today, you know, including things such as the establishment of opening liaison offices in Washington and in Pyongyang. So, the sudden decision to cut short the meeting, to basically shut down the talks, and—it came as a sudden surprise. And the mood, which started out celebratory, was soon overshadowed by the sudden decision and the announcement that Trump made, that North Korea was demanding the full lifting of sanctions.

And so, I mean, I want to first start by saying we don’t know what the full picture is. And, in fact, there have been now some reports coming out, especially from South Korea, the former minister of unification is suggesting that Bolton—of course—I mean, once we saw the picture of the table and we saw Pompeo and we saw Bolton, I mean, we had to—that was a red flag that something was going to be derailed. And so, what we understand from the South Korean side is that Bolton was insisting that biological and chemical weapons were to be part of the package. And so North Korea obviously shifted their position and called for full lifting of sanctions.

So, we don’t know what the full picture is. We obviously have to hear from the North Korean side. But I wouldn’t just quickly, you know, take Trump’s line that North Korea was asking for something that is—was unreasonable, because, clearly, a lot of work had been done. I think Stephen Biegun, who is the special representative and envoy, clearly spent a lot of time. He gave a speech at Stanford a few weeks ago. It was perhaps one of the most thoughtful, comprehensive understanding of the situation, and it seemed as if we were on the brink of a diplomatic breakthrough.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to President Trump speaking earlier today.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The inspections on North Korea will take place and will, if we do something with them—we have a schedule set up that is very good. We know things that—as David was asking about, certain places and certain sites. There are sites that people don’t know about, that we know about. We would be able to do inspections, we think, very, very successfully.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting, Christine. President Trump was not extremely critical of the North Korean leader. He was not being defiant. He got some help from Sean Hannity, who was in the audience, almost reminding him, saying something along the lines of, “President Trump, you know, of course, President Reagan walked away at Reykjavík, and that was just a strategy,” he said. But your thoughts on where you think this will head, President Trump saying maybe they’ll meet again soon, or maybe it will be a very long time from now?

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, I mean, there are two things that give me hope in this current moment. One is, I mean, actually, the rapport, if you actually see the rapport that Trump and Kim have established. I mean, you need the leaders of the two countries to have good rapport. And clearly there is something there.

And, you know, the fact that Trump said two things in his press conference really surprised me. One was, he put a dollar bill, the amount, a price tag, on the U.S. war drills. He said they cost $100 million. It’s a huge waste of money. The other thing he said was that the sanctions harm the people of North Korea and that he wouldn’t be adding more new sanctions. I think that’s a great outcome. It’s a great foundation. But we need to continue to build on it. We need to push for it.

The other thing that obviously gives me hope is that the peace—the historic peace that’s taking place between North and South Korea. The Korean people want an end to this Korean War. Nine out of 10 South Koreans want a declaration to the end of the war. They have made tremendous progress.

So, one of the key outcomes that we were hoping for was the lifting of sanctions, that are definitely getting in the way of inter-Korean economic progress. And so, I think that we have to take it to the International Court. We have to take it to the world of public opinion. Sanctions is not some kind of sterile thing. This is something that is having a daily impact on the lives of North Korean people. Sixty thousand North Korean children can starve as a result of sanctions. We’ve heard the special rapporteur on human rights say that the sanctions are impacting the day-to-day life of North Korean people.

You know, this is not just a game of politics. This is a game of people’s lives. This is not a game. And I think that there’s an urgency, not just for the people that are living in North Korea, but think about the people of the Korean Peninsula, where they have lived for 70 years of a constant threat of war breaking out, intentionally or accidentally. This is not a game. And this is a moment where the international community must put pressure, whether at the U.N. level, and put pressure on the countries that have been siding with the United States, and say, “This is enough. This is enough.” Korea wants peace. And the international community has a responsibility to support it.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Ahn, can you talk about the role of South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, in facilitating the North Korea-U.S. negotiations?

CHRISTINE AHN: I mean, he’s been absolutely essential. And the good news is that Trump asked his support after he left today, that he really wanted his support in, you know, continuing to play this facilitating role. But, you know, we would not be in this place were it not the incredibly effective diplomacy by President Moon.

And, you know, we have to take a hard look at what is a true alliance. And is it alliance of the military? Is it alliance of the corporations? Or is it alliance of the people? And if the people of South Korea are asking the American people to support this historic peace, that won’t happen for another lifetime—and the stars are aligned right now. And so, I speak with—you know, having worked on this issue for most of my adult life. We are not going to have this opportunity.

And so that’s why another thing that gives me hope is that Congressman Ro Khanna, Andy Kim, the first Korean-American Democrat, and several women congresswomen, including Barbara Lee, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jan Schakowsky—they have all stepped forward to introduce this congressional resolution calling for an end to the Korean War and urging the president to establish a process towards the signing of a peace agreement. We’re not going to get to denuclearization, we’re not going to get to the improvement of human rights, until we get to peace. And, you know, declaring an end to the Korean War was going to be a first step, but it’s not enough. It’s not a legally a binding agreement. And we need to push for this.

And as I wrote in an op-ed with Gloria Steinem in The Washington Post, the Korean War is America’s oldest war. It inaugurated the military-industrial complex. It set forth the U.S. foreign policy to be the world’s military police. I don’t think Americans want that anymore. And we have this historic opportunity to end America’s oldest war.

We have a U.S. Congress that is the most representative ever of the American population, and we have the greatest number of women in Congress right now. This is the moment now to push for this war. It’s not just a symbolic thing. But think about—I live in Hawaii, where there’s the U.S. Pacific Command. Think about how much is invested in preparation for war with North Korea. Clearly, there’s China behind that. But think about what we can do. We’ll never be able to achieve the bold vision for Medicare for all or free college tuition or New Green Deal, unless we tackle the $700 billion budget that is currently being invested. And North Korea is the greatest—allegedly the greatest U.S. foreign policy challenge.

We have a golden opportunity. The Korean people want peace. It’s time for the American people to stand up with them and urge the president. And if not, and if President Trump is not movable, then we have to try the U.S. government, and that’s where Congress has a role to play, not just to authorize war, but they have a role to declare peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Ahn, you were among hundreds of women who wrote a letter jointly to Donald Trump and to Kim Jong-un, calling for peace and saying peace women should be at the table. Can you explain?

CHRISTINE AHN: Absolutely. I mean, I think right now the fragility of the talks shows that we have to democratize this process. We can’t leave it just in the hands of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. It needs to have—it’s not just a war, a 70-year war, between the leaders of the two countries. We have had generations of propaganda. We’ve always seen North Korea through a prism of war. And we need to have people-to-people engagement. That is what’s going to bring genuine peace.

And we know that when women are included in the peace process, it leads to a peace agreement—and not just a peace agreement, but a really durable one. And when half the world’s population isn’t part of shaping a peace agreement that reflects the desire of half the world’s population, it’s not going to, obviously, be a just and sustainable one. So we’re demanding that there is a process that includes civil society and that includes women’s rights groups, because we have seen the record. In 40 conflicts around the world, in all but one case, when women’s groups were involved in the peace process, it led to a peace agreement. And we want to see denuclearization. We want to see peace. We want to see the improvement of human rights. We’ll never get there, until there is a true peace, until war is taken off the table.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine, finally, I want to ask about Otto Warmbier, the American student who was imprisoned for more than 17 months for trying to steal a propaganda sign in a North Korean hotel, died in June 2017, a week after he was released from a North Korean prison and returned to the U.S. in a coma. When Trump was asked if he discussed Warmbier with Kim Jong-un at the Hanoi news conference, Trump said, quote, “He tells me he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word. Those prisons are rough. They’re rough places, and bad things happen. But I don’t believe he knew about it,” he said. Your response?

CHRISTINE AHN: Well, I believe that it’s very possible that Kim Jong-un wouldn’t know and that perhaps those that were overseeing Otto Warmbier’s condition didn’t know what to do, when—you know, if—what they’re saying is that he fell into a coma and that they didn’t have the proper medical ability to treat him.

But what we do know is that when he returned, when his body was returned back to the United States, the doctor that received him conducted—like basically did a full examination. And she basically held a press conference, after the Warmbiers did, and said, “I examined his body, and this is not the sign of—there wasn’t torture. In fact, you know, for his condition, he was actually—he was very well taken care of.” And that, unfortunately—there was a really great piece—I think it was in GQ, because the author couldn’t find another publication, but people should read that. It’s an incredibly insightful view into the complexity of what took place. But I think that’s a really important point that is obscured in the media and definitely hidden, is that the doctor that received him said—had a completely different narrative about the condition when he returned to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Although, of course, there was the question—

CHRISTINE AHN: I mean, it is a tragic situation. And—

AMY GOODMAN: There was the question of why he was held at all, for that length of time.

CHRISTINE AHN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, it’s an absurd thing. North Korea should have released him. There was no reason to do that. But I think, you know, it’s back to the issue of North Korea, and the situation on the Korean Peninsula is one of a state of war. And North Korea is a garrison state. It is in a siege mentality. And if we want to see progress towards that, isolating them, doing aggressive military exercises, you know, conducting sanctions that prevent the development of the economy—I mean, we look at the U.N. Security Council sanctions, for example. You know, it bans exports of textiles. I mean, who do you think works of these textile factories, but women? And so, we know that when women have access to the resources, when they control the purse, that the conditions of their families and their communities improve. So, how are we not seeing this broader geopolitical context of the conditions in North Korea? We have to say we have some culpability in this.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine Ahn, I want to thank you very much for being with us, founder and executive director of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing to end the Korean War, speaking to us from Hanoi, Vietnam, where the U.S.-North Korea summit has broken down. President Trump has left. But we will continue, of course, to cover this story. And we’ll link to the joint letter to both leaders from hundreds of women around the world calling for an end to the Korean War.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, highlights from the testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday of Michael Cohen. Stay with us.

North Korea Agreed to Denuclearize, but When Will the US?

A powerful economic incentive continues to drive the nuclear arms race. After the Singapore Summit, the stock values of all major defense contractors — including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and General Dynamics — declined.

Given his allegiance to boosting corporate profits, it’s no surprise that Donald Trump is counterbalancing the effects of the Singapore Summit’s steps toward denuclearization with a Nuclear Posture Review that steers the US toward developing leaner and meaner nukes and lowers the threshold for using them.

The United States has allocated $1.7 trillion to streamline our nuclear arsenal, despite having agreed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968 to work toward nuclear disarmament.

Meanwhile, the US maintains a stockpile of 7,000 nuclear weapons, some 900 of them on “hair trigger alert,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“If weapons are used they need to be replaced,” Brand McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial Network has argued. “That makes war a growth story for these stocks, and one of the big potential growth stories recently has been North Korea. What the agreement does, at least for a while, is take military conflict off the table.”

Moreover, economic incentives surrounding conventional weapons also cut against the promise of peace on the Korean Peninsula. Eric Sirotkin, founder of Lawyers for Demilitarization and Peace in Korea, has pointed out that South Korea is one of the largest importers of conventional weapons from the United States. If North and South Korea achieve “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” as envisioned by the agreement between Trump and Kim Jong Un, the market for US weapons could dry up, according to Sirotkin.

Even so, US defense spending will continue to increase, according to Bloomberg Intelligence aerospace expert George Ferguson. “If North Korea turns from a pariah state to being welcomed in the world community, there are still enough trouble spots that require strong defense spending, supporting revenue and profit growth at prime defense contractors.”

The US Lags Behind on Denuclearization

Last year, more than 120 countries approved the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which requires ratifying countries “never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” It also prohibits the transfer of, use of, or threat to use nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices.

Since the treaty opened for signature on September 20, 2017, 58 countries have signed and 10 have ratified it. Fifty countries must ratify the treaty for it to enter into force, hopefully in 2019.

The five original nuclear-armed nations — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — boycotted the treaty negotiations and the voting. North Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India, which also have nuclear weapons, refrained from participating in the final vote. During negotiations, in October 2016, North Korea had voted for the treaty.

In advance of the Singapore Summit, dozens of Korean American organizations and allies signed a statement of unity, which says:

Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula means not only eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons but also denuclearizing the land, air, and seas of the entire peninsula. This is not North Korea’s obligation alone. South Korea and the United States, which has in the past introduced and deployed close to one thousand tactical nuclear weapons in the southern half of the peninsula, also need to take concrete steps to create a nuclear-free peninsula.

Prospects for Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula

The jury is out on whether the statement signed by Trump and Kim after months of hurling incendiary nuclear threats at each other will prevent future nuclear threats and pave the way for global denuclearization.

On April 27, 2018, the Panmunjom Declaration, a momentous agreement between South Korea and North Korea, set the stage for the Singapore Summit. It reads, “The two leaders [of North and South Korea] solemnly declared before the 80 million Korean people and the whole world that there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.”

The Trump-Kim statement explicitly reaffirmed the Panmunjom Declaration and said North Korea “commits to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

However, when the summit was in the planning stages and before Trump anointed John Bolton as National Security Adviser, Bolton skeptically predicted the summit would not deter North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Bolton wants regime change in North Korea. His invocation of the Libya model — in which Muammar Qaddafi relinquished his nuclear weapons and was then viciously murdered — nearly derailed the summit. Bolton cynically hoped the summit would provide “a way to foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste in negotiations that will never produce the result we want.”

Sirotkin told Truthout, “Sadly, [the summit] may be set up in this way to please the John Bolton neocon wing as this offers nothing but the peace we agreed to after World War II for all countries of the world in the UN Charter.”

Meanwhile, Trump claims he has achieved something his predecessors — particularly his nemesis Barack Obama — were unable to pull off. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” Trump tweeted upon landing in the United States after the summit. Five minutes later, he again took to Twitter, declaring, “Before taking office people were assuming we were going to War with North Korea. President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight.”

In an analysis shared via Facebook, H. Bruce Franklin, professor emeritus at Rutgers University, pointed out that — in a sideways fashion — Trump was correct when he tweeted there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea:

[Trump] of course omitted the simple fact that there never was a realistic nuclear threat from North Korea, which has been frantically building a nuclear capability to act as a deterrent against U.S. aggression. If the U.S. stops threatening North Korea, North Korea will have no motive to threaten the U.S. with retaliation. The United States never faced any nuclear threat until we forced the Soviet Union to create one in 1949 to serve as a deterrent against our aggression.

The significance of the Singapore Summit should not be underestimated. Trump is the first US president to meet with the leader of North Korea. Trump showed Kim respect, and Kim responded in kind. Trump and Kim made a major commitment to peace. We should applaud and support it, and encourage Trump to sit down with Iran’s leaders as well.

The joint agreement signed by the two leaders in Singapore was admittedly sketchy, and denuclearization will not happen overnight. But the agreement was a critical first step in a process of rapprochement between two countries that have, in effect, been at war since 1950.

Indeed, the United States has continued to carry out military exercises with South Korea, which North Korea considers preparation for an invasion. In a critical move, Trump stated at the post-summit press conference that the United States would suspend its “very provocative” war games.

Trump also announced a freeze on any new US sanctions against North Korea and indicated that the United States could lift the current harsh sanctions even before accomplishing total denuclearization. Kim promised to halt nuclear testing and destroy a testing site for ballistic missile engines.

Ultimately, however, it is only global denuclearization that will eliminate the unimaginable threat of nuclear war.

Donald Trump Has History of Contradictory Statements on Nuclear Weapons

Campaign Flashback: Trump’s 2016 Nuclear Weapons Stance1:45

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. drastically increase its nuclear arsenal follows a presidential campaign in which he made a number of contradictory statements about weapons of mass destruction.

As a candidate, he called nuclear proliferation the “single biggest threat” facing the world while also suggesting Japan and South Korea should obtain nuclear weapons as a defense. During one debate he ruled out a “first strike” but in the same breath said he would not take anything off the table.

Related: Trump Wanted Tenfold Increase in Nuclear Arsenal, Surprising Military

His desire to increase the country’s nuclear capabilities nearly tenfold, voiced during a meeting with top national security leaders in July, came as North Korea continued to escalate nuclear tensions with more weapons tests.

As a candidate and as president, Trump has been fairly consistent in calling for the modernization of the country’s nuclear weapons.

Here’s how Trump has talked about nuclear weapons since launching his presidential run and entering the White House.

Trump Claims to Have Ordered the Modernization of the Country’s Nuclear Weapons

My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before….

…Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!

As a Candidate, He Criticized the Country’s Nuclear Arsenal as Outdated

The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes

Trump Has Given A Variety of Answers on Using Nuclear Weapons

  • “I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.” — Presidential DebateSept. 26, 2016
  • “I don’t want to rule out anything. I will be the last to use nuclear weapons. It’s a horror to use nuclear weapons. The power of weaponry today is the single greatest problem that our world has.” — TODAY, April 28, 2016
  • “I will do everything within my power never to be in a position where we have to use nuclear power because that’s a whole different ballgame.” — Interview with The New York Times, July 21, 2016
  • “Nuclear should be off the table, but would there be a time when it would be used? Possibly. Possibly. … I would be the last one to use the nuclear weapons. Because that’s sort of like the end of the ballgame. … I’m not going to use nukes, but I’m not taking any cards off the table.” — Town Hall with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, March 30, 2016
  • “Well, it is an absolute last stance. And, you know, I use the word unpredictable. You want to be unpredictable.” — Interview on CBS’ “Face The Nation,” Jan. 3, 2016
  • “It is highly, highly, highly, highly unlikely that I would ever be using them.” —Interview with GQ, Nov. 23, 2015

He Has Called Nuclear Proliferation the “Greatest Threat” Facing the U.S.

  • “Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation.” — Interview with The New York Times, March 26, 2016
  • “Our single biggest problem we have is nuclear weapons, you know, countries with them.” — Town Hall on Fox News, March 3, 2016
  • “The biggest problem this world has today is not President Obama with global warming, which is inconceivable, this is what he’s saying. The biggest problem we have is nuclear — nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That’s in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.” — Republican Presidential Debate, Dec. 15, 2015

But He Has Also Suggested Japan, South Korea and Even Saudi Arabia Should Have Them

  • As far as Japan and other countries, we are being ripped off by everybody in the — we’re defending other countries. We are spending a fortune doing it. They have the bargain of the century. All I said is, we have to renegotiate these agreements, because our country cannot afford to defend Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, South Korea and many other places. We cannot continue to afford — she took that as saying nuclear weapons.” — Presidential Debate, Oct. 19, 2016

CNN’s WOLF BLITZER: But — but you’re ready to let Japan and South Korea become nuclear powers?

TRUMP: I am prepared to — if they’re not going to take care of us properly, we cannot afford to be the military and the police for the world. We are, right now, the police for the entire world. We are policing the entire world.

You know, when people look at our military and they say, “Oh, wow, that’s fantastic,” they have many, many times — you know, we spend many times what any other country spends on the military. But it’s not really for us. We’re defending other countries.

So all I’m saying is this: They have to pay.

And you know what? I’m prepared to walk, and if they have to defend themselves against North Korea, where you have a maniac over there, in my opinion, if they don’t — if they don’t take care of us properly, if they don’t respect us enough to take care of us properly, then you know what’s going to have to happen, Wolf?

It’s very simple. They’re going to have to defend themselves.

— Interview on CNN, May, 4, 2016

CNN’s ANDERSON COOPER: So you have no problem with Japan and South Korea having nuclear weapons?

TRUMP: At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself, we have …

COOPER: Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?

TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, absolutely.

COOPER: You would be fine with them having nuclear weapons?

TRUMP: No, not nuclear weapons, but they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.

Here’s the thing, with Japan, they have to pay us or we have to let them protect themselves.

COOPER: So if you said, Japan, yes, it’s fine, you get nuclear weapons, South Korea, you as well, and Saudi Arabia says we want them, too?

TRUMP: Can I be honest with you? It’s going to happen anyway. It’s going to happen anyway. It’s only a question of time. They’re going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely. But you have so many countries already, China, Pakistan, you have so many countries, Russia, you have so many countries right now that have them.

Now, wouldn’t you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons? And they do have them. They absolutely have them. They can’t — they have no carrier system yet but they will very soon.

Wouldn’t you rather have Japan, perhaps, they’re over there, they’re very close, they’re very fearful of North Korea, and we’re supposed to protect.

— CNN Town Hall, March 29, 2016

Trump Even Said He Would Not Take Using a Nuclear Bomb in Europe Off the Table

  • “Europe is a big place. I’m not going to take cards off the table. We have nuclear capability. Now, our capability is going down rapidly because of what we’re doing. It’s in bad shape. The equipment is not properly maintained. There are all lot of talk about that. And that’s a bad thing, not a good thing. The last person to use nuclear would be Donald Trump. That’s the way I feel. I think it is a horrible thing. The thought of it is horrible. But I don’t want to take anything off the table. We have to negotiate. There will be times maybe when we’re going to be in a very deep, very difficult, very horrible negotiation. The last person — I’m not going to take it off the table. And I said it yesterday. And I stay with it.” — Interview on Fox News, March 31, 2016

In Iran and North Korea, Trump Is Playing With Nuclear Fire

Iranian protesters hold banners and shout slogans during an Anti-US protest after Donald Trump's UN speech against Iran, at the Tehran University campus in Tehran, Iran on September 22, 2017. (Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)Iranian protesters hold banners and shout slogans during a protest after Donald Trump’s UN speech against Iran, at the Tehran University campus in Tehran, Iran, on September 22, 2017. (Photo: Fatemeh Bahrami / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which spearheaded a landmark nuclear disarmament treaty, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The significance of this award cannot be underestimated.

Donald Trump’s bombastic and frightening threats against North Korea and Iran may portend a catastrophic attack that could impact the entire world.

The US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing 210,000 people. During the week following the bombings, thousands of survivors experienced a unique combination of symptoms, Susan Southard wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

Their hair fell out in large clumps, their wounds secreted extreme amounts of pus, and their gums swelled and bled. Purple spots appeared on their bodies, signs of hemorrhaging beneath the skin. Infections ravaged their internal organs. Within a few days of the onset of symptoms, many people lost consciousness, mumbled deliriously and died in extreme pain; others languished for weeks before either dying or slowly recovering.

In the face of Trump’s nuclear threats, the danger the world faces is immeasurable.

Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons

On July 7, more than 120 countries approved the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which requires ratifying countries “never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” The treaty also prohibits the transfer of, use of, or threat to use nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices.

To read more stories like this, visit Human Rights and Global Wrongs.

Fifty-three countries officially signed the treaty, and three have already ratified it, which makes them parties to the accord. Ninety days after 50 countries ratify it, the treaty will enter into force.

However, the five original nuclear-armed countries — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — boycotted the treaty negotiations and the voting. North Korea, Israel, Pakistan and India, which also have nuclear weapons, refrained from participating in the final vote as well. In October 2016, during negotiations, North Korea had voted for the treaty.

The State Department issued a statement saying, “The United States does not support and will not sign the [treaty].”

Trump Threatens to Blow Up the Iran Deal

Meanwhile, Trump is moving the world closer to nuclear war, threatening North Korea with destruction and attempting to blow up the nuclear deal with Iran. The day before the new treaty was concluded, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it attacked; that amounted to a threat to commit genocide.

Peace prize historian Oeivind Stenersen said the Nobel committee intended “to send a signal to North Korea and the US that they need to go into negotiations. The prize is also coded to support the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.”

The Iran deal is embodied in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It rescinded the punishing US and international sanctions on Iran, amounting to billions of dollars of relief. In return, Iran agreed to curtail its nuclear program.

Under the US Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the president must determine every 90 days whether Iran remains in compliance with the JCPOA and whether it still serves US interests. The next 90-day period ends on October 15. Trump will reportedly refuse to certify that Iran is compliant with the agreement on October 12, in spite of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency’s finding that Iran is in compliance.

If Trump refuses to certify that Iran is compliant with the JCPOA or determines the agreement is not in the national interest, Congress will then have 60 days to act. If Congress reimposes sanctions, it would likely cause the JCPOA to unravel. Iran would then proceed with a program to develop nuclear weapons.

The White House has signaled that Trump will urge Congress not to reimpose sanctions, but rather hopes Congress will pass new legislation beyond the scope of the original deal. “If Congress complies, such unilateral action to change a multilateral agreement will effective kill it,” Wendy Sherman, former under secretary of state for political affairs and US lead negotiator for the JCPOA, wrote in The New York Times.

Moreover, if Trump’s actions scuttle the Iran deal, it will send a dangerous message to North Korea that the United States cannot be trusted to abide by its multilateral agreements.

Both Trump’s threats against North Korea and his undermining of the JCPOA could lead to nuclear war.

US Violates Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires nuclear states to eliminate their nuclear weapons and non-nuclear states to refrain from acquiring them. In 2005, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told the Institute for Public Accuracy, “The US government is not adhering to Article VI of the NPT and we show no signs of planning to adhere to its requirements to move forward with the elimination — not reduction, but elimination — of nuclear weapons.”

In 1996, the International Court of Justice stated in an advisory opinion, “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” But the nuclear powers have ignored that decision.

And in spite of UN Security Council Resolution 687, which established a weapons-of mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East, Israel maintains a formidable nuclear arsenal.

“The nuclear weapons states, governed by political realists, basically have no trust in law or morality when it comes to national security,” international law expert Richard Falk wrote, “but base their faith in the hyper-rationality of destructive military power, which in the nuclear age is expressed in the arcane idiom of deterrence, an idea more transparently known in the Cold War Era as Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD!!).”

Indeed, Trump is planning a $1 trillion rebuilding of the US nuclear weapons program.

Only the US Has Used Nuclear Weapons

The United States is the only country ever to use nuclear weapons. On the day of the Hiroshima bombing, 19-year-old Shinji Mikamo was on the roof of his house helping his father prepare it for demolition when he saw a huge fireball coming at him. He heard a deafening explosion and felt a searing pain throughout his body. It felt as if boiling water had been poured over him. His chest and right arm were totally burned. Pieces of his flesh fell from his body like ragged clothing. The pain was unbearable. Shinji was three-quarters of a mile from the epicenter of the bomb. He survived, but most of his family perished.

Shinji’s daughter, Dr. Akiko Mikamo, author of Rising From the Ashes: A True Story of Survival and Forgiveness, told a Veterans for Peace Convention that 99 percent of those who were outdoors at the time of the blast died immediately or within 48 hours.

This should serve as a cautionary note to Trump — and Congress — that there is no trifling with nuclear weapons.

“The Calm Before the Storm”

Yet during a photo opportunity he staged with military leaders after meeting with them to discuss North Korea and Iran, Trump issued an ominous warning:

“You guys know what this represents? … Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”

What storm?

“You’ll find out.”

Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, told The Hill that Trump’s decertification of the Iran deal “will trigger a process that very likely will lead to the collapse of the deal.”

Parsi said on Democracy Now!, “The buzz here is that there’s going to be a very significant ramping up, an escalation, in the region against Iran, potentially including shooting down Iranian airplanes, sinking Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf, targeting Iranian troops or Iranian-allied troops in Iraq and in Syria.”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are reportedly counseling Trump to certify that Iran is complying with the JCPOA.

But Trump has consistently criticized the Iran deal, probably because it was concluded on Barack Obama’s watch and Israel is dead set against it.

In any event, Trump is playing with fire — nuclear fire — in both North Korea and Iran. We must pressure the White House and Congress members alike, and hope that cooler heads prevail. The stakes are unbearably high.

Here’s what could happen if North Korea detonates a hydrogen bomb

Razed cities. Loss of life. Contaminated fishing stocks. Crippled satellite networks.

Should the nuclear crisis between the United States and North Korea escalate beyond hurling test missiles and insults like “madman” and “dotard,” the list of possible effects is a long and frightening one.

Whether North Korea were to simply test a nuclear warhead or aim one at a target like the U.S. territory of Guam — as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has threatened — there would be consequences for both people and the environment.

It’s impossible to predict precisely the effects of a North Korean nuclear blast because so much depends on the type, size and method and elevation of the detonation, says Danny Lam, a Calgary-based defence analyst with a PhD in environmental engineering.

But using as a guide the size of the nuclear test North Korea conducted Sept. 3 — estimated at 250 kilotonnes — some idea of the scope of the damage can be estimated.

“These are not toys,” says Lam, who recently testified before the House of Commons defence committee convened to discuss North Korean aggression. “These are big massive weapons that generate massive effects. These are big city busters.”

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho has said the country will perform an atmospheric test of a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean, after claiming a successful underground test of a hydrogen bomb in early September. Hydrogen bombs have a far larger yield than traditional weapons.

But it’s not known if the nation has the technology to make a bomb small enough to fit on a missile. Its missile testing in the Pacific has sent unarmed missiles into the Earth’s atmosphere, but some seemed to have a range that could reach the West Coast of the U.S.

Nuclear fallout zone

Should Kim make good on his threat to target Guam with a nuclear bomb the size of the Sept. 3 test, it would generate a fireball covering an area of 1.6 square kilometres and result in close to 100 per cent loss of life within six square kilometres, Lam says. Most residential buildings within 26 square kilometres would collapse, and prevailing winds would carry residual radioactive material about 270 kilometres northeast of the island.


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has pledged to continue his weapons program, sending a message to the UN that he will explode an a hydrogen bomb somewhere in the Pacific. (KCNA/Reuters)

In the 1950s, a series of nuclear tests in Bikini Atoll, part of the Pacific’s Marshall Islands, were much bigger than North Korea’s most recent test. But they rendered the whole area unlivable due to contaminated soil and water that made farming and fishing dangerous. Eventually all residents had to be relocated and they have not returned.

For context, it’s important to know that the world has already seen testing of nuclear weapons far bigger than what North Korea is known to have, says Lam, and it hasn’t caused widespread radiation sickness or environmental devastation beyond the blast area.

“If they launched the warhead, we can safely say that it be real bad for any persons nearby … but it is probably not a big deal in terms of radiation release except for the local area.”

An atmospheric nuclear test would be far more dangerous than detonations in controlled underground environments, because of the force of the blast and unrestrained release of radioactive materials that could spread out over large areas. Such a launch would potentially endanger aircraft and ships because it’s highly unlikely the North would give prior warnings or send naval vessels to the area to control sea traffic.

Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert from South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute, says missile tests can easily go wrong, and the consequences of failure could be terrifying if the missile is armed with a nuclear weapon.

If a misfire comes close to Japan, that could trigger retaliation from Washington, he told Reuters.

Electromagnetic pulse

Much more threatening to the broader world is the potential damage from an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) triggered by an atmospheric nuclear blast, says Peter Vincent Pry, executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security in the U.S.

EMP is a burst of electromagnetic energy that destroys or damages satellite networks.

If North Korea was to detonate a certain kind of EMP-emitting bomb at high altitude, the low-earth orbit satellites would be destroyed or damaged, says Pry. “And they are vital to our ability to defend South Korea; they’re vital to our economy.”

“Even the GPS systems in automobiles, airplanes depend on these satellites. Our communications, both commercial and military, depend on these satellites,” says Pry, who has served on several congressional committees on EMP and other aspects of defense.

That means, not only would your cellphone network be down at home, military who normally perform high-tech targeted missions wouldn’t have the satellite data they rely upon to do so.

Without those space systems, the U.S. and its allies would move backward to an industrial-era military forced to counter threats like those from North Korea the old-fashioned way — through sheer numbers. “We’d be worse off, because we don’t train for that kind of war and they do.”

There’s a reason that the comprehensive nuclear-test ban treaty forbids this kind of high atmosphere tests, says Lam.

“We haven’t had this type of horror really since [the Second World War] and we’d much prefer we never see it again.”

Trump vs. Kim: Political theater or prelude to apocalypse?

, Detroit Free Press ColumnistPublished 6:00 a.m. ET Sept. 24, 2017 | Updated 11:35 a.m. ET Sept. 24, 2017

They hurl insults at each other like sweaty commuters consumed by road rage. The rest of us look on in confusion, unsure whether we are watching meaningless political theater or the realization of some apocalyptic biblical prophecy.

Kim Jong Un calls Donald Trump  “mentally deranged.” Trump responds that Kim is “obviously a madman.”

Practically everyone suspects that each man has a point. What we know for sure is that both control nuclear arsenals capable of wreaking destruction beyond anyone’s comprehension.

It has been going on all summer, this surreal spectacle of chest-thumping and name-calling. The prospect that Trump or Kim might actually do the things they have been threatening to do on an almost daily basis is so terrifying that the only response most of us can muster is to joke about it.

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We understand that the sniper perched in the bell tower, the hacker who steals our financial data or the hurricane poised to pulverize a populous city are threats we have to do something about. In each case, there’s a list of actions those in harm’s way can take to make themselves at least a little less vulnerable.

But it’s unclear what ordinary residents of San Francisco, Tokyo, Seoul or Pyongyang could do to protect themselves if Trump or Kim decided to unleash the fire and furythey are so fond of threatening in their tweets and propaganda videos. So we dismiss their bombast as the stuff of fantasy, like a science-fiction movie in which the protagonist travels across time or discovers that his spouse and children are really holograms.

Delusions of survival

For more than half a century, almost everyone with any responsibility for the deployment of nuclear weapons has shared the tacit understanding that their use would obliterate any meaningful distinction between belligerents and bystanders.

Distance and technological ingenuity might afford those at the periphery of a major nuclear exchange some temporary advantage. But in the long run, those privileged bystanders might end up envying those who had been instantly incinerated. (If global warming makes you anxious, then Google “nuclear winter” and learn what happens when climate change occurs so suddenly that no one has time to argue about it.)

What worries those trying to make sense of North Korea’s provocations is the possibility that Kim and his generals are either skeptical of that consensus or simply indifferent to the possibility that any nuclear exchange would end in North Korea’s annihilation.

Colin Powell at U-M:U.S. should ignore North Koreans when they shoot missiles
More: How would a nuclear bomb impact your city? Online tool lets you find out

There is anecdotal evidence to support both of these worrisome hypotheses. Evan Osnos, a veteran foreign correspondent who visited North Korea last month, says he was struck by North Koreans’ widespread conviction that a nuclear showdown with the U.S. would leave their country battered but intact.

“People go out of their way to tell you how comfortable they are with the idea of a nuclear exchange,” Osnos told interviewer Terri Gross in an interview after his return from Pyongyang.

“I had a conversation with a very smart and very alert, knowledgeable America analyst at the Foreign Ministry, a guy named Pak Song Il, whose job it is to analyze the United States, speaks extremely good English. And he said, ‘Look, we understand that a war would be devastating, but we’ve survived devastation twice in our recent history — the Korean War and then the famine of the mid-’90s which killed up to 3 million people.’
“And he said, ‘We would survive again.’

“And he took me down into the subway, which is built a hundred meters underground, twice the depth of the New York subway system, and he said, “This is where we would go in the event of a nuclear strike.’ He showed me the blast doors.”

Bruce Bennett, a Rand Corp. analyst who meets regularly with some of the most senior defectors to escape North Korea, likes to begin briefings with an even scarier anecdote dating to the early 1990s, when Kim Il Sung, grandfather of the current leader and the first in the line of Kims that has ruled the country for decades, asked his most trusted military leaders what he should do if North Korea lost a war with the U.S.

“The North Korean military guys were all smart enough to know that it was a really good time to keep your mouth shut,” Bennett recalls in an overview published in the current edition of the Rand Review. “But his son, Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader, spoke up and said, ‘If we lose, I will be sure to destroy the Earth. What good is the Earth without North Korea?’ ”

Trump poured gasoline on the paranoia when he asserted that North Korea’s current leader is “on a suicide mission,” suggesting that Kim’s provocations are not only likely to hasten his country’s annihilation but consciously designed to do so. If he’s right, we should probably stop arguing about Obamacare and eat more ice cream.

The confusion is mutual

The generals and analysts advising Trump seem less inclined to take such conspicuous displays of bravado at face value. They are proceeding on the optimistic assumption that Kim and the elite coterie that supports him are as interested in continuing to draw breath as anyone else, but have convinced themselves that the nuclear threat is the surest guarantee of both their country’s physical security and their own political power.

The Trump administration’s grown-ups want to believe they have counterparts in the North Korean intelligence community who are just as quick to discount the U.S. president’s public provocations as they are to dismiss Kim’s. But journalists who’ve visited North Korea say Trump’s tweets leave the Kim regime’s analysts just as puzzled about Washington’s intentions as U.S. strategists are about Pyongyang’s. You needn’t be paranoid to worry that either side’s miscalculation about the other’s motives could prove as dangerous as any overt military act.

When thinking about North Korea drives me to binge-eating, I like to contemplate ways the current crisis could end in something less dramatic than global catastrophe. Here are some of the more plausible ones:

The U.S. might have the capacity to disrupt Pyongyang’s breakneck schedule of tests and missile flights via cyber-measures or infrastructure sabotage that fall short of a conventional military attack. Such measures could covertly discourage Kim without providing a clear pretext for retaliatory action.

But this is a comforting scenario based on little more than conjecture. Bennett and others point out that such a strategy hinges on a combination of technical prowess and reliable intelligence difficult to secure in the world’s most opaque nation.

An ever-tightening vise of economic sanctions might convince North Korean elites and military leaders on whom Kim depends for support to replace his regime with one more eager to find accommodation with its neighbors.

But defectors say Kim’s well-publicized policy of brutality toward those suspected of subversion — the so-called three-generation rule, in which a disloyal official’s children and grandchildren are liable for offenses against the regime — discourages even the mildest dissent.

China might be persuaded to join U.S. allies in the Pacific to support containment measures that make North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons no scarier than, say, Pakistan’s.

But some U.S. analysts believe North Korea wants nuclear weapons not to defend its own territory, but to pursue its dream of reunifying the Korean peninsula.

For all its risks, the last scenario — a dug-in, nuclear-armed regime kept in line by the same threat of mutually assured destruction that deterred the U.S and the Soviet Union from annihilating each other through the Cold War era — may offer the best hedge against a war that leaves unprecedented carnage.

All we can be certain of now is that the well-being of millions on both sides of the Pacific depends on both sides remembering that no one should take their leaders’ public threats very seriously.

Thinking the Unthinkable With North Korea


The United States and South Korean militaries taking part in drills at a multiple exercise range in Pocheon, South Korea, in April. CreditSeung-il Ryu/NurPhoto, via Getty Images

President Trump has promised the world that he will “solve” the North Korean nuclear crisis before the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, can screw a nuclear weapon onto a missile that can reach San Francisco or Los Angeles, a grim feat that experts say he is on track to achieve during Mr. Trump’s first term. The president is right to point out that his predecessors succeeded only at kicking this problem down the road. But Mr. Trump hasn’t said how he plans to solve the problem.

History suggests that as Mr. Trump comes to understand the risks involved, he will settle for constraints on North Korean testing to stop it from being able to reach the American homeland with a nuclear-tipped missile. President Xi Jinping of China pointed him in that direction at the Mar-a-Lago summit meeting in April, proposing a freeze on United States military activity on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for suspending North Korea’s long-range missile tests.

An approach that requires the United States to accept what it longed deemed “unacceptable” will strike many people in Washington as irresponsible. Is United States national security really strengthened if a 33-year-old dictator with a record of executing his enemies and defying red lines is left with an arsenal of 20 warheads and missiles that can deliver nuclear strikes against Seoul and Tokyo? It would be a hard pill to swallow, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged in South Korea two months ago, when he noted that such a freeze was “premature” since it does not readily solve anything.

But as Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson review the choices that Mao Zedong made in 1950, and John F. Kennedy made in 1962, they will come to appreciate the risks of cornering an adversary — and find the clearest clues for a deal that Washington and Beijing could support.


U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Carl Vinson about 30 kilometers south of Tsushima island in a north-northeasterly direction headed toward waters off the Korean Peninsula as part of moves to exert pressure on Pyongyang to stop its nuclear and missile development programs. CreditThe Asahi Shimbun, via Getty Images

Start with Mao. In the Korean War, American policy makers assumed that if the United States went to the defense of South Korea, a China exhausted by years of civil war would not respond. They were wrong. Mao did not hesitate to unleash a huge counterattack on a nuclear superpower when United States soldiers in Korea neared the Chinese border. Overwhelmed, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s men retreated.

Could that happen again? Maybe. The United States intelligence community believes that American military strikes against North Korea would almost certainly trigger retaliation that would kill up to a million citizens in Seoul. The South Korean government would respond with a full-scale attack on the North. The United States is committed to support South Korea. But would Mr. Xi ever allow the Korean Peninsula to be reunified by a government allied with the United States?

And history is working against us. A Harvard study I led found 16 cases over the past 500 years when a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. In 12 of them, the outcome was war. Today, as an unstoppable rising China rivals an immovable reigning United States, this dynamic — which I call Thucydides’s Trap — amplifies risks.

What we see unfolding now is a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion. In the most dangerous moment in recorded history, to prevent the Soviet Union from placing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy was prepared to take what he confessed was a one-in-three chance of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. What risk will Mr. Trump run to prevent North Korea acquiring the ability to strike the United States?

As Kennedy approached the final hour in which he would have to attack, risking nuclear war, or acquiesce to a Soviet nuclear presence in America’s backyard, both he and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, began to examine previously unthinkable options. In the popular American narrative, Khrushchev capitulated. But we now know that both sides blinked. Kennedy agreed secretly to remove American missiles from Turkey, an option he and his advisers had earlier rejected because of its impact on NATO — and because he would look weak.

Kennedy’s central lesson from the crisis still offers wise counsel for Mr. Trump. “Above all,” Kennedy said, “while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.”

At Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Xi reportedly urged Mr. Trump to accept “suspension for suspension.” For Mr. Kim’s freeze on additional ICBM tests, the United States could postpone or modify military exercises in the region. Some people in Mr. Xi’s circle have even proposed that the United States and China consider a new East Asian security architecture.

Indeed, they note that America’s presence in South Korea is an accident of history. Had North Korea not attacked the South in 1950, the United States would never have intervened. So if China were to assume responsibility for removing the Kim regime, denuclearizing the country, and reunifying the peninsula under a government in Seoul friendly to Beijing, would the United States remove all its bases from the South and end its military alliance?

For most American presidents, the idea would be a nonstarter. But Mr. Trump is nothing if not original. Will the necessity of avoiding nuclear war, in this case, become again the mother of invention?