Since nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan 72 years ago in 1945, the devastation was so immense and the after-effects so long lasting, that no one really anticipated any world leader could take us down such a path again. But the dangerous game of brinkmanship being played out on the Korean peninsula is bringing about the realisation that one slight miscalculation or accident could again lead to nuclear annihilation, but this time of far greater numbers, and not confined to just one nation.
The hydrogen bomb that North Korea tested a week ago was seven times the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Estimates are that North Korea already has as many as 60 usable nuclear warheads which could be fitted onto its ICBMs with the potential of reaching not only Seoul, but Chicago. The US Rand Corporation has predicted that North Korea is on track to have as many as 100 nuclear weapons in three years' time, which is half the nuclear arsenal of the UK.
The speed with which North Korea has developed its nuclear weapons programme despite all the sanctions imposed on it by the international community is astounding. In 2006 it tested a 1 kiloton nuclear bomb, three years later it was a 2 kiloton bomb, three years after that a 6-7 kiloton bomb, last year it was a 10 kiloton bomb, and this year it was a 160 kiloton bomb. A remarkable achievement for a nation which the West thought it had starved into submission.
While one would like to believe that Trump and Kim Jong-un are rational actors who will act in the best interests of their countries, the problem is that collateral damage may not be as much of a concern to either leader as we might think.
North Korea, like Iran, has made provision for a nuclear war that includes extensive networks of underground subways with blast doors that will enable a segment of its population to survive and perpetuate the North Korean nation. In preparation for a possible American nuclear attack on Tehran, the Iranians have taken the same precautions, designing an underground subway system that could second as a nuclear bunker facility to enable at least some of its residents to survive.
We have seen over consecutive decades that North Korean leaders have viewed their civilians as dispensable, and now they are quick to say that in the event of nuclear war with the US, “not everyone will die.” It is clear that elaborate provisions have been made to ensure the survival of the Kim dynasty in the event of a nuclear attack. The North Koreans are also devising their war strategies not in incremental moves typical of conventional war, but with the objective of total annihilation, whereby the enemy would be totally destroyed.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in entered office this year seeking dialogue and reconciliation with the North, and hoping to reverse the controversial deployment of THAAD - the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system that the Americans were delivering as the transition of power took place. But with the latest war games under way, Moon Jae-in believes he is left with little choice but to acquire whatever defensive military systems are available to protect his people. This week the deployment of THAAD was completed, much to the chagrin of environmentalists, peace activists, North Korea, and the Chinese.
The THAAD missile interceptor launchers are located 300km south of Seoul, and have a 15-for-15 success rate in tests. While the system will help to defend against short-range North Korean missiles, it won’t stop ICBMs, leaving South Korea particularly vulnerable to North Korea’s current capabilities.
There is no going back. North Korea is already a nuclear power, but just wants to be recognised as one. It has set the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo as the benchmark by which it expects the world to recognise it as a nuclear weapons state.
It is only realistic to expect North Korea to return to the negotiation table once its nuclear weapons status has been recognised. Given that 25 years of diplomacy has failed to stop its long march, it is perhaps time to develop a new strategy of how to deal with the Kim dynasty. This may mean recognising the unthinkable: that Kim Jong-Un has the capability to annihilate a large portion of civilisation.
* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor