The USS Kentucky alone carries 24 Trident missiles, each one 80 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. US Defense Secretary James Mattis toured the submarine this month and declared it ready for action.
One is often haunted by this manifest reality, especially when a nuclear crisis between the US and North Korea flares up. Americans are reassured by their military power, both conventional and nuclear. Most either do not know or do not care about the disparity between their country’s nuclear capabilities and those of North Korea. Pyongyang’s saber-rattling is indeed cause for alarm, but far scarier is that its entire nuclear stockpile consist of only 60 weapons, compared with 6,970 owned by the US, of which 1,750 are operational. To place these numbers in a global perspective, there are about 15,000 nuclear weapons worldwide. While the North Koreans require a sixth successful test to put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile, the US has conducted 1,030 such nuclear tests since July 1945.
Surely, one cannot excuse the foolish and desperate behavior of Pyongyang and its “beloved leader,” but there is more to this crisis than Kim Jong Un and his unpredictable antics. North Korea is often referred to as a secretive nation, a form of words that gives pundits and politicians an uncontested platform to make whatever assumptions suit them. But the legacy of the Korean War in the 1950s, which divided Korea and its peoples, is hardly a secret. An estimated 4 million people died, half of them civilians. The US and its allies fought that war under the flag of the nascent UN. It is therefore not difficult to imagine why North Koreans detest the US, distrust US allies and loathe the UN and its repeated sanctions.
The North Korean leadership must also be following developments in the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. The two issues are often discussed separately, but they are linked, for various reasons. One is that North Korea, too, reached several understandings with the US through mediators in the 1990s and 2000s to curb its nuclear program. In 2005, it agreed to ditch “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” The issue was never seriously pursued, partly because the US requires some kind of threat to justify its military presence in East Asia and challenge Chinese influence there. But that policy comes at a high price, as the nuclear menace is emerging once again.
The short-lived period of relative calm between Tehran and Washington after the nuclear deal ended with the election of Donald Trump. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is pushing for more sanctions. The Iranian president Hassan Rouhani threatened to cancel the deal “within hours” in the event of further sanctions, and said Washington was “not a good partner.”
While the US, China, North Korea and Iran play geopolitical chess with weapons of mass destruction, the world lives in fear of the ultimate horror.
Having also concluded that Washington is “not a good partner,” North Korea seems determined to acquire ICBMs and the technology needed to miniaturize nuclear warheads, giving it more clout in negotiations with Washington.
The US, at least for now, is using the flare-up with North Korea to advance its “pivot to Asia,” a thus-far failed process that began under Barack Obama. The aim is to encircle China with US allies and military hardware to prevent the Chinese military from expanding its influence past its immediate territorial waters. Certainly, China is frustrated by North Korea’s behavior, and has supported more UN sanctions on Pyongyang. But since China understands Washington’s motives, Beijing knows that the dispute over North Korea is also a fight for China’s own regional leadership.
The Chinese leadership’s view is clear. “If North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral,” it said. But if the US and South Korea try to “overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.” While many in Washington focused on the word “neutral,” they paid little heed to the phrase “will prevent them.” China is clearly speaking of a military intervention.
Trump and Kim are dubious figures, driven by fragile egos and unsound judgment, and if they are not reined in they could threaten global security and the lives of millions, but the problem is far greater than two unhinged leaders. Seven other countries possess nuclear weapons: Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, China, France and Britain. These weapons have only one horrific use.
If the intention is indeed to make the world a safe place, there is no need for anyone to possess them, for “deterrence” purposes or any other. Neither Washington, Pyongyang, Tel Aviv or anyone else should hold the world hostage, exacting political and economic ransom in exchange for not destroying our planet.
• Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California. Visit his website: www.ramzybaroud.net.