MADness and North Korea

“I told myself I won’t be the cause of World War III,” recounted Stanislav Petrov, a Russian hero of the Cold War, of an incident in which “Soviet early warning satellites had detected the long-feared American nuclear strike” but “he came to the conclusion that something wasn’t right. Instead of notifying the chain of command of impending doom, he recorded the moment as a system malfunction.” He was right, of course,[1] and his story joins a few others that I have been accumulating in which somebody in the right place at the right time made the right call, saving the world from nuclear Armageddon.[2]

I wish that two other men would repeat Petrov’s words, but as it happens, the two are Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Trump has threatened to “‘totally destroy’ North Korea unless Kim Jong Un’s government gives up its nuclear arms and missile programs” in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly.[3] I might lack imagination and I suppose this might be yet another case where we are to take Trump’s words metaphorically rather than literally or that it might be yet another case in which Trump is simply flat out lying, but I fail to see how his threat might be carried out without carpet bombing (albeit, presumably, with missiles) North Korea with nuclear weapons. And even as unimaginative as I might be, I’m totally unsurprised that “North Korea’s foreign minister warned in a United Nations speech Saturday that a rocket attack on the U.S. mainland was ‘inevitable.’” And not to be outdone, “U.S. warplanes flew off the east coast of North Korea in an explicit show of force.”[4]

It would be good for me to be clear on what I mean by a “pissing contest” especially in this case because it illuminates my logic in crucial ways: While I expect comparable or analogous behavior almost certainly occurs between at least some women, I understand a “pissing contest” to be between two men, each of whom is propelled by convictions that 1) he can’t back down and 2) a notion that victory may be attained through bellicosity. Notice that these two senses are somewhat paradoxical: If you cannot back down, your only response to your opponent’s bellicosity is an escalation of your own bellicosity. Which means that he who bellows last “wins.”

Which is surely a highly intelligent approach to any problem. And when I say “bellow,” I’m choosing a broad and metaphorical connotation that may translate to include the use of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps I should explain that I’m just completely burned out on threats of nuclear war. The Cold War in all its mutually assured destruction (MAD) horror was a major worry for the first roughly thirty years of my life. Part of my fury with the Democrats right now is that they seek to rationalize their election defeat last year with (probably true) allegations that the Russians interfered, stoking tensions with Moscow and intensifying a new cold war.

And frankly, on the topic of nuclear war, the U.S. may be the scariest country in the world. This country is, after all, the only power ever to have actually used atomic weapons (in Japan in World War II, if you’re drawing a blank). And many anti-communist conservatives in the U.S. strongly advocated the a preemptive nuclear attack, not on any probability, but rather a mere hope that enough “good” “Americans” might survive to live free from the fear of Soviet domination.[5]

I am not reassured by the stories of heroes averting war. For one thing, while I don’t imagine my archive on this topic is even remotely complete, most of the stories I’ve encountered are of Soviet rather than U.S. officials and military officers. And there are too many cases where, as Sébastien Roblin wrote of an incident during the Cuban missile crisis, “a nuclear exchange was averted for reasons far more circumstantial than any would care to stake the fate of humanity on.”[6]

But there are other differences. In the Cold War, both U.S. and Soviet leaders relied on brinksmanship, but they generally sought to avoid an actual ‘hot’ nuclear war. The incidents where such a war almost came to pass anyway were only indirectly initiated by political leadership. This cannot safely be said of the pissing match between Trump and Kim Jong Un, where Trump says vaguely, “We’re going to do it,”[7] and Kim Jong Un keeps pushing forward with nuclear weapons development and testing regardless of economic sanctions and regardless of Trump’s or anybody else’s bluster.

And, of course, war with North Korea might not just be war just with North Korea. One of the reasons China supports the status quo on the Korean peninsula and does not apply more pressure on North Korea than it does is that North Korea serves as a buffer between U.S. forces and its own border. And regardless of how war starts, China may feel bound by the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance “to intervene against unprovoked aggression” on North Korea[8] or may, in defense of its own interests, simply choose to defend North Korea despite its provocative behavior.

I don’t imagine that the amount of nuclear fallout from the total destruction of North Korea, which would likely drift east over the Pacific Ocean back toward the U.S. and Canada, would be inconsequential. But if China gets involved—and we have to assume that it very well might—there will be a lot more fallout probably headed our way.

Way to go, shitheads.

Lon Augustenborg argues that “[w]e [the U.S.] are running out of options quickly,” and further, that “we have to put more pressure on China [to ‘cut everything off’ to North Korea], even if it means not paying our debts to them [the Chinese],”[9] It is odd that Augustenborg, a former chief of operations for the CIA counterintelligence center, makes this argument: Yes, the Chinese-North Korean alliance is under strain, and yes, it at least appears that the Chinese also oppose a nuclear-armed North Korea, but getting the Chinese to crack down on North Korea has long been problematic. China’s government, which prizes stability above all else, also worries about a destabilizing and massive flow of refugees from North Korea, so they have been reluctant to do anything to make the situation there any worse.[10] So the Chinese have engaged in an exercise of what I learned to recognize as “constructive ambiguity,” a method of seeking to reconcile irreconcilable positions through ambiguous language that appears to allow opposing sides to all claim victory.

Constructive ambiguity really is bullshit, but diplomats see it as a lesser evil than war. The trouble is that it really doesn’t solve the problem,[11] it is ultimately unmasked as deception (despite the complicity of all sides in reaching such an agreement, the “other side” stands accused of deception), and that Trump appears unlikely to accept it. Trump says, “This shouldn’t be handled now. But I’m going to handle it because we have to handle it. Little rocket man. We’re going to do it. Because we really have no choice. We really have no choice.”[12] The last part, where he claims “we really have no choice,” is dubious. We have no choice at least in part because this is a pissing contest.

The smart thing to do with a pissing contest is not to get involved in one in the first place. But you see, we have these two shitheads whose egos are vastly more important to them than working to avoid nuclear war.

Which is part of the reason that the doctrine of mutual assured destruction is such MADness: The U.S. and Soviet Union accumulated vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons on the theory that enough would survive a first strike to allow a devastating counter-strike. With a lot more luck than wisdom, we somehow survived this for decades. But the notion that political leaders would act to de-escalate tensions before a conflagration always relied on certain assumptions about those leaders. In the current standoff, those assumptions are manifestly invalid.

Correction, September 25, 2017: As originally published, I guessed (and labeled it as a guess) that an attack on North Korea might take the form of submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles. It turns out that the missiles of that sort that existed were tactical, not strategic (and yes, you’d want strategic because these are the really big ones), and have been retired.[13] The text has been modified to considerably reduce the scope of that guess. My thanks are due to Robert Hansen for this.

Note, September 25, 2017: Hansen also points out that Donald Trump’s actual phrasing in his threat against North Korea was, “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,”[14] suggesting that the characterization I drew from the Congressional Quarterly Roll Call article cited, specifically, that Trump has threatened to “‘totally destroy’ North Korea unless Kim Jong Un’s government gives up its nuclear arms and missile programs”[15] was unsupported. I disagree with Hansen here. In his speech to the United Nations General Nations, Trump also complained that “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life,”[16] and while this was not his only complaint against North Korea, I find the Roll Call article’s inference that this “reckless pursuit” was a threat to be defended against reasonable and have not (yet, anyway) seen it disputed elsewhere. I have not modified the text on this.

  1. [1]Public Radio International, “The unsung Soviet officer who averted nuclear war,” September 21, 2017, https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-09-21/soviet-officer-who-averted-nuclear-war
  2. [2]I assume there are many more stories like these: Michael Dobbs, “The Photographs That Prevented World War III,” Smithsonian, October, 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/the-photographs-that-prevented-world-war-iii-36910430/; Robert Farley, “How the Soviet Union and China Almost Started World War III,” National Interest, February 9, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-the-soviet-union-china-almost-started-world-war-iii-15152; Geoffrey Forden, “False Alarms in the Nuclear Age,” Nova, November 6, 2001, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/nuclear-false-alarms.html; Sébastien Roblin, “The Terrifying Tale of How One Russian Submarine Almost Started World War III over Cuba,” National Interest, June 22, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-terrifying-tale-how-one-russian-submarine-almost-started-21270; Edward Wilson, “Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war,” Guardian, October 27, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/27/vasili-arkhipov-stopped-nuclear-war
  3. [3]John T. Bennett, “Trump Threatens to ‘Destroy’ North Korea,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, September 19, 2017, http://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/trumpth-korea-united-nations/
  4. [4]Farnaz Fassihi and Ben Kesling, “Tensions Rise as U.S. Warplanes Skirt North Korean Coast, Pyongyang’s Envoy Sharpens Threats,” Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-warplanes-fly-alongth-koreas-coastline-in-show-of-force-1506193762
  5. [5]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  6. [6]Sébastien Roblin, “The Terrifying Tale of How One Russian Submarine Almost Started World War III over Cuba,” National Interest, June 22, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-terrifying-tale-how-one-russian-submarine-almost-started-21270
  7. [7]Donald Trump, quoted in Julia Manchester, “Former top CIA official: US ‘running out of options’ on NK,” Hill, September 24, 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/sunday-talk-shows/352081-former-top-cia-official-running-out-of-options-on-nk
  8. [8]Eleanor Albert, “The China–North Korea Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 5, 2017, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinath-korea-relationship
  9. [9]Lon Augustenborg, quoted in Julia Manchester, “Former top CIA official: US ‘running out of options’ on NK,” Hill, September 24, 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/sunday-talk-shows/352081-former-top-cia-official-running-out-of-options-on-nk
  10. [10]Eleanor Albert, “The China–North Korea Relationship,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 5, 2017, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinath-korea-relationship
  11. [11]To put this in David Barash and Charles Weber’s frame, constructive ambiguity enables a peace merely as an absence of fighting rather than as the just resolution of conflict. David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).
  12. [12]Donald Trump, quoted in Julia Manchester, “Former top CIA official: US ‘running out of options’ on NK,” Hill, September 24, 2017, http://thehill.com/homenews/sunday-talk-shows/352081-former-top-cia-official-running-out-of-options-on-nk
  13. [13]Hans M. Kristensen, “US Navy Instruction Confirms Retirement of Nuclear Tomahawk Cruise Missile,” Federation of American Scientists, March 18, 2013, https://fas.org/blogs/security/2013/03/tomahawk/
  14. [14]Donald Trump, quoted in Politico, “Full text: Trump’s 2017 U.N. speech transcript,” September 19, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/19/trump-un-speech-2017-full-text-transcript-242879
  15. [15]John T. Bennett, “Trump Threatens to ‘Destroy’ North Korea,” Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, September 19, 2017, http://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/trumpth-korea-united-nations/
  16. [16]Donald Trump, quoted in Politico, “Full text: Trump’s 2017 U.N. speech transcript,” September 19, 2017, http://www.politico.com/story/2017/09/19/trump-un-speech-2017-full-text-transcript-242879

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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