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Seventy Years Wthout a Nuclear War

We have been hearing a lot about the 70th anniversary of the first use of a nuclear weapon on human beings, in Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945. The more important anniversary, however, is 9 August, when the LAST nuclear weapon was used in war, on the city of Nagasaki.

It was predictable that atomic bombs would be used as soon as they were developed in 1945. It was the sixth year of the Second World War, and more than 60 million people had been killed already. But nobody would have believed then that nuclear weapons would not be used again in future wars.

We cannot be sure that they never will be used in war again, of course, but seventy years is already an impressive accomplishent. How did we manage that? One way to answer that question is to consider the behaviour of US President Harry S Truman, who was the man who decided to drop the first atomic bombs in 1945 – and the first man to decide NOT to drop them, in 1951.

Truman’s decision to drop the bombs in 1945 probably didn’t seem as momentous to him at the time as it looks now. Killing tens of thousands of civilians in cities by mass bombing (Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo) was practically routine by 1945, and the atomic bombs would have seemed like just a more efficient way of doing the same thing.

Besides, the fact that Japanese cities could now be destroyed by a single plane carrying a single bomb might well shock the Japanese government into surrendering. That would spare the lives of all the American soldiers (an estimated 46,000) who would die if Japan had to be invaded.

Truman had fought in the First World War (he was the only major Allied war leader who did). Although he was not generally seen as an imaginative man, he would have been vividly aware of the ordeal that awaited American soldiers if they had to invade Japan. He would also have been conscious that the US public would never forgive him if they found out that he had the bomb but didn’t use it to save those soldiers’ lives.

So he gave the orders and the bombs fell, adding a last quarter-million lives to that 60-million death toll. But five and a half years later, when US forces in Korea were fleeing south after Chinese troops intervened in the war there (“the big bug-out”), Truman behaved quite differently.

It may or may not be true that US General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the United Nations troops in Korea (including a third of a million Americans), wanted to drop atomic bombs on China’s Manchurian provinces to cut the supply lines of the Chinese troops in Korea. It is certainly true that Truman fired MacArthur, and that he did not use nuclear weapons even though thousands of American troops were being killed or captured.

Truman never explained his decision, but one possible reason is that actually seeing what nuclear weapons do to human beings (which nobody had yet seen when he made his 1945 decision) may have changed his view of them. They were not just another new weapon. They were the ultimate weapon, and they must not be used. And the other reason is obvious.

By late 1950, the United States had between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons – but the Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb in the previous year, and by then it already had at least half a dozen of the things. The era of mutual deterrence had arrived.

Truman didn’t know for certain that the Soviet Union would go to war if the US dropped nuclear weapons on China. He would have been fairly certain that the Russians didn’t yet have the ability to drop even one on the United States, although they could definitely hit America’s allies in Western Europe. But it didn’t matter: once both sides have nuclear weapons, they get a great deal more cautious.

In the following decades, many military theorists have worked hard to come up with strategies that would make nuclear weapons useful in war, and many scientists and engineers have worked on new techniques and technologies that would achieve the same objective. But nobody has ever had enough confidence in their promises to use even one of these weapons in a war.

The number of nuclear weapons in the world (many of them much more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs) peaked at around 50,000 in the mid-1980s, and has since fallen to about 15,000. The US and Russia still own 93 percent of them, but seven other countries now have nukes too – and still nobody has used one in war.

It is also true that no great power has fought any other great power directly for seventy years, which is certainly a first in world history. Is this because the two world wars had been so destructive that they created institutions like the UN Security Council to avoid another, or because they knew that great-power wars would probably be nuclear wars?

Probably both, but at any rate we’re making progress.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“Truman…lives”; and “Truman…obvious”)

A War in Korea

1 April 2013

A War in Korea?

By Gwynne Dyer

The US-South Korean military exercises will continue until the end of this month, and the North Korean threats to do something terrible if they do not stop grow more hysterical by the day. Last week the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un, was shown signing a decree that ordered North Korea’s long-range missile forces to be ready to launch against the United States, while senior military officers looked on approvingly.

On the wall behind Kim was a map, helpfully labelled “US Mainland Strike Plan”, that showed the missile trajectories from North Korea to Hawaii, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Austin, Texas. (Why Austin? Doesn’t he like indie rock?) It was a scene straight out of the villain’s lair in an early James Bond movie, except that they’d forgotten to set it in a cave.

These threats are so palpably empty that the instinct of both the Pentagon and the US State Department is just to ignore them. North Korea has no operational missile that can reach even western Alaska, no miniaturised nuclear warhead to put on such a missile, and no long-range targeting capability. But the politics of the situation demands that the US government respond seriously to every threat, however foolish.

So next year the US government will spend another billion dollars or so to place fourteen more anti-ballistic missile sites in Alaska, presumably to protect the Alaskan west coast and the Aleutian Islands from a North Korean nuclear strike. And last Friday it sent two B-2 bombers all the way from Missouri non-stop to drop bombs on some uninhabited islands near North Korea, just to remind Pyongyang that it can.

It’s all still just a charade, a spring display of military capacities by two rival armed forces that could as well be rutting deer. The United States would not even play this game if the logic of both international and domestic politics did not oblige it to respond to the increasingly rabid North Korean threats. But it is playing nevertheless, and the risk of miscalculation is quite serious.

Anybody who tells you he KNOWS what is going on inside the North Korean regime is a liar, but there are a few safe assumptions. Real decision-making power on war and peace almost certainly lies with the senior ranks of the North Korean army, not with young Mr Kim or the Communist Party. It’s also clear that Kim, new to power and insecure, feels the need to look tough, just as his father did when he inherited the leadership from Kim’s grandfather.

 

And nobody in the North Korean regime knows how things work in the rest of the world. They may even be genuinely afraid that the US-South Korean military exercises, although they have been held annually for decades, are this time only a cover for a plan to attack North Korea. After all, the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung, concentrated his forces under cover of military exercises in just that way when he invaded South Korea in 1950.

 

The North Korean military doubtless understand that they must not get into a nuclear war with the United States, but they may believe that their dozen or so nuclear weapons make it safe for them to use conventional force without facing American nuclear retaliation. And they do have rather a lot of conventional military force at their disposal.

Kim Jong-un’s threats are being exposed as bluffs almost daily – the US-South Korean military exercises go on as though he had said nothing – and he may ultimately feel obliged to DO something to restore his credibility. It would probably be just a limited local attack somewhere, but in the current atmosphere, with both Seoul and Washington determined not to submit to psychological blackmail, that could escalate rapidly to full-scale conventional war.

It would be a major war, for although North Korea’s weapons are mostly last-generation, that is not such a big handicap in ground warfare as it is in the air or at sea. North Korean troops are well-trained, and there are over a million of them. Moreover, South Korea is compelled to defend well forward because holding on to Seoul, only 50 km (30 miles) from the frontier, is a political imperative. That makes it quite vulnerable to breakthroughs.

The North Koreans would attack south in a three-pronged thrust, accompanied by Special Forces operations deep in South Korean territory, just as they did in 1950. The geography gives them few alternatives.

US-South Korean strategy would also echo 1950-51: contain the North Korean attack as close to the border as possible, and then counter-attack up the west coast on an axis heading north through Kaesong to Pyongyang. That would once again be accompanied by a big amphibious landing well behind the North Korean front, this time probably at Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast.

Even if the North Korean air force were effectively destroyed in the first couple of days, as it probably would be, this would be a highly mobile, hard-fought land war in densely populated territory involving high casualties and massive destruction. The world has not seen such a war for more than fifty years now.

We really don’t need to see it again.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Anybody…1950”)

 

 

Varieties of Nepotism: Korea

18 July 2012

Varieties of Nepotism: Korea

By Gwynne Dyer

What has been happening in North Korea recently is straight out of the “Hereditary Dictatorship for Dummies” handbook. Kim Jong-un, the pudgy young heir to the leadership of one of the world’s last Communist states, is removing powerful people who were loyal to his father and replacing them with men (it’s always men) who owe their advancement only to him.

Vice-Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the chief of the North Korean army until late last week, was not disloyal to the new boss. On the contrary, Ri’s support was vital in ensuring a smooth transition after the death of Kim Jong-Il, the old boss, and he gave it unstintingly. But in the end the vice-marshal didn’t owe everything to Kim Jong-un, so he had to go.

In his place, Kim Jong-un has promoted a man nobody had ever heard of before. His name is Hyon Yong-chol, but you don’t have to remember it unless you really want to. The point is that Hyon will have annoyed a lot of other generals in the army because he has been promoted over their heads, and so he is absolutely dependent on the good will of the young master.

Meanwhile, the propaganda that is intended to promote Kim Jong-un to the rank of god-king pours forth. When he visited an air force training unit, the North Korean news agency reported, he “guided the flight training of pilots.” At a concert, he “gave precious teachings for the performing activities of the Korean People’s Army Military Band.” It turns out that he is an expert in pretty well everything.

And just to be sure, Kim Jong-un had himself promoted to Marshal this week, so now he outranks everybody else in the armed forces. At least he hasn’t had all his brothers and half-brothers killed in order to rule out any challenges from within the family, like the Ottoman sultans used to do after they ascended the throne. So there IS progress, you see.

Things are done very differently in South Korea. There the presidents are chosen by the free vote of all the people (or at least all the ones who bother to vote). But the candidate most likely to win the presidential elections this December is the daughter of the dictator who ruled the country with an iron hand for two decades, until he was finally assassinated in 1979.

There are, to be sure, some striking differences between Ms Park Geun-hye, who will probably be South Korea’s first female president, and the callow youth who is scrambling to put his stamp on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea up north.

Park has earned her candidacy by a lifetime of public service, including a decade at the head of Yeungnam University and fourteen years in politics, during which she earned the nickname “Queen of Elections” for her skill in delivering the vote to her party even in the most adverse circumstances. At 60, she is more than twice Kim Jong-un’s age, and she has seen and done a lot.

On the other hand, it is very unlikely that she would have had this stellar career if she had grown up as the daughter of an army sergeant on a succession of bleak army posts. Growing up in the presidential palace, and serving as South Korea’s first lady for five years while still in her early 20s, after her mother was assassinated in 1974, was bound to produce a different outcome. It also helps with the name recognition that every politician needs.

If elected, Park Geun-hye may be a very successful president. She may have the determination and the clout to take on the big industries that dominate South Korean society and deliver more security and social justice to those at the bottom. She may even manage to create an opening with North Korea if she finds a willing partner in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-un is a completely closed book. Nobody beyond his own family has the slightest idea what he thinks and intends, and maybe even they don’t. Maybe he doesn’t even know himself yet. But unlike his father and grandfather, he has seen something of the world (he was educated partly in Switzerland), and it may have given him ideas.

The point is not that either of these people is necessarily a bad choice as president. It’s that both countries (but especially the North) are fishing in a very shallow pool. There are probably thousands of people in each country who would make better leaders, but they lack the connections and they will never be considered for the job. In fact, the same thing is true everywhere.

Would Hillary Clinton be the US Secretary of State if her husband had not been the president? Would George W Bush ever have been considered as a possible president if his dad had not been a moderately successful one? For that matter, would Aung San Suu Kyi, runner-up to Nelson Mandela in the Global Sainthood Stakes, ever have become the voice of Burmese democracy if her father had not been the (autocratic) hero of the independence movement?

Can anything be done about this? Probably not, but it is a pity.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Meanwhile…everything”; and “If elected…Pyongyang”)

 

 

North Korea: Do Not Access All Areas

14 October 2008

North Korea: Do Not Access All Areas

By Gwynne Dyer

Korea is not a tropical country. In the autumn, the leaves turn yellow and red, and by October the process is pretty far along, especially in North Korea. Which is why there are grave doubts that Kim Jong-Il is in good health, as Pyongyang pretends, and indeed some question whether he is alive at all. And despite Monday’s agreement by Washington to take Kim’s neo-Stalinist regime off its list of terrorism sponsors, which persuaded North Korea to let international inspectors back into its Yongbyon nuclear site, we still don’t know where its nuclear weapons (if they exist) might be hidden.

Kim, the “Dear Leader” and absolute ruler of North Korea since 1994, has not been seen in public since early September, when he failed to make an appearance at a military parade marking the regime’s 60th anniversary. There was intense speculation in South Korea that the 66-year-old dictator had suffered a stroke and undergone surgery, although the source of this rumour was never clear.

The North Korean regime denied anything was wrong (as it always does), and last Saturday it finally produced some recent footage of Kim Jong-Il inspecting a women’s military unit. The only problem was that it was an outdoor location with lots of trees and bushes, and all the leaves were a lush green colour. Nowhere in Korea looks like that in mid-October; a horticultural expert at Seoul National University estimated that the event took place in July or August.

Couldn’t they at least have produced some INDOOR footage of the Dear Leader that nobody had seen before, so that the deception was not so obvious? Probably not, since this is a regime where the dictator’s activities are on the front page of the papers every day and lead the television news each evening. His every public act is documented, but the material is used immediately. They must have searched long and hard for some footage that would not already have been seen by every foreign embassy in Pyongyang. Too bad about the leaves.

This confirms that Kim Jong-Il is at least seriously ill. For all we know, he may be dead, and there may be a fierce succession struggle going on behind the scenes in Pyongyang. (The Dear Leader inherited power from his father, the “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, who founded the regime in 1948, but none of the current ruler’s children have been publicly groomed for the throne.) Whatever the state of palace politics in Pyongyang, however, the regime retains the ability to run circles around the Bush administration in diplomacy.

The most recent confrontation began last month, when North Korea announced that it intended to restart nuclear activities at Yongbyon because the US had not kept its promise to remove Pyongyang from its terrorism blacklist. That was part of the six-country deal signed last November, in which North Korea agreed to end its nuclear activities in return for badly needed aid.

As part of the deal, Washington agreed to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism — and a lot of the aid could not legally flow to Pyongyang until that was done. But the Bush administration, as so often before, overplayed a weak hand: it stalled on removing the terrorism label in the hope of forcing North Korea to allow American and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors freer access to suspected North Korean nuclear sites.

So the North Koreans simply stopped dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear site (including the plutonium reprocessing plant) and announced that they were re-activating it. It took the Bush administration, in legacy mode and desperate for at least one apparent foreign policy success, only a couple of weeks to yield to Pyongyang’s demand. Washington removed North Korea from the terrorism list on Saturday, and Pyongyang let the inspectors back in on Sunday. But they can’t go wherever they please.

As before, international inspectors only have access to “declared” North Korean nuclear sites. “Undeclared” sites — ones that Pyongyang forgot to mention — can only be inspected with the regime’s permission, on a case-by-case basis. The whole play around the terrorism designation was an attempt by Washington to force Pyongyang to allow wider access, and it has failed miserably. Game, set and match to North Korea.

The harshest critic of this outcome is none other than John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security in the first Bush administration. Washington’s climb-down last weekend left all the key questions unanswered, he complained: “Where are their weapons? Where is the rest of their plutonium? Where is their uranium enrichment program? What have they done in terms of outward proliferation? And we got essentially nothing new on that other than a commitment to keep negotiating.”

What’s ironic about this is that Washington’s tactics in this diplomatic fiasco are very reminiscent of the style that Bolton favoured himself when he was in office: bluster and threats, with not much ability to deliver. It didn’t work for him, either.

The rest of the world still doesn’t know whether North Korea has usable nuclear weapons (it tested one in 2006, with unimpressive results), or how many, or where they might be hidden. Whoever is in charge in Pyongyang is playing a weak hand very, very well.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“Couldn’t…leaves”; and “What’s…either”)