Georgia Aspinall | Contributing Writer | Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Ask An Adult: Should We Be Worried About North Korea?

Ask An Adult: Exactly How Worried Should We Be About North Korea Right Now?

The Debrief: We spoke to Professor Michael Goodman about the likelihood of a nuclear strike.

‘Thermonuclear war may break out at any moment’. Oh. What a great news to start your day back at work after four days of chocolate-filled boozing. North Korea made the warning on Tuesday as the US vice-president Mike Pence met with Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister to tell Japan ‘we are with you 100 percent’.

The US is attempting to cement allies of Japan, South Korea and China to prevent North Korea from continuing to develop their nuclear weapons programme after stating they would continue to test missiles ‘on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis’. Han Song-Ryol, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister told the BBC that an all-out war would ensue if the US took military action. Of course, Donald Trump is no stranger to making military threats (someone delete his Twitter PLEASE), with Mike Pence stating that ‘the era for strategic patience is over’.

Unsurprisingly, everyone is now shitting themselves. The fear is that we're reverting back to a Cold War state, except now weapons of mass destruction are in the hands of men who would actually use them. We all remember the tragedy of Hiroshima. Drop a warhead carried by a Trident missile on the center of London and there would be an estimated 377,000 deaths and over 800,000 injuries- whether that is due to the blast or the radiation fall out depends on how far out of London you live; the further the better. Last year, NHS London reported the total number of hospital beds in the city was 18,000- with 6,000 to be lost by 2017. So essentially, should a nuclear warhead hit London, 98% of those injured would be without a hospital bed. That’s the best-case scenario, as we’re not accounting for the 6,000 beds that may have already been cut due to slashes in government spending on the NHS. 

Now that your sufficiently terrified, here’s the good news: the likelihood of the UK ever being a nuclear target for North Korea is very small. This is according to Michael Goodman, Professor in Intelligence and International Affairs at King’s College London. In his professional opinion, Britain should be afraid of how irrational Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump are, but not that we would ever be a nuclear target. 

‘When you have someone who is irrational and totally paranoid then history tells us they will resort to tactics which we might not expect of a sane leader. At the same time, I don’t think we need to fear that we in the UK will be the target of some kind of nuclear strike. But I think the overall situation is very worrying.’

Nor does Goodman think that North Korea have the means to get a nuclear missile to the US mainland. We should however, be worried for South Korea and Japan who are the more likely targets. Both of these countries are viewed as US allies, and therefore an attack on them would be an attack on the US. Yet, as Goodman says, Kim Yong-Un doesn’t follow typical tactics, and neither does Trump. One atypical possibility could be an attack on American warships that are sailing near North Korea:

‘If the North Korean’s panic and do launch a nuclear strike on warship out there what the American’s would do would be interesting. Whether they would go to the UN and try and resolve it that way or whether they would take unilateral action, it’s hard to say. Trump is unpredictable, and if there was a large-scale attack on one of those ships or it resulted in significant American loss of life then it’s hard to know what he would do.’

It’s difficult not to link the escalated tensions with the arrival of Trump, whose volatile and erratic behavior as President is creating a storm of fear and confusion. Kim Jong-Un has been in power in North Korea since 2011, yet only now has conflict intensified so much as to legitimately fear a nuclear war. It may be unfounded for us in the UK, as Goodman confirms, but the narrative global media is setting around this tension is heightening panic. 

A 2003 study into the impact of the Cold War showed that ‘frequent fear of nuclear war in adolescents seems to be an indicator for an increased risk for common mental disorders and deserves serious attention.’ Reverting back to this state of constant worrying about the likelihood of nuclear war could have extremely detrimental impact on teens when we are already in the midst of a mental health crisis. 

With two chaotic leaders engaging in a nuclear stakes ego battle it’s no surprise people are debating stocking up on tinned goods. All we can hope is that there are rational advisers hiding the key to the big red button box:

‘You’d like to think even if Trump woke up tomorrow and said “let’s bomb these bastards out of existence and press the big red button” you’d have senior military figures who would be more level-headed. It would not just be up to Trump to say let’s go and attack them with a nuclear weapon.’

Despite that, the dick swinging competition continues to worry the public, and those level-heads are more necessary than ever to relieve tension. The UK will play a role, but China will be the most likely ally of peace in this scenario:

‘The UK’s role will partly be through the UN as one of the main powers that has a permanency right on security council to veto anything. I suspect we will be an observer or a peacemaker for a very long time. I find it very hard to conceive of a situation where our military would be involved, unless things escalated so much that this became a World War but I like to think there are too many sane heads to let it get that far.’

The much more interesting question is what China will do, as North Korea’s only significant ally in the region and of equally significant power to make the US stand up and take note. Of course, there’s only so much a mediator can do once two bulls lock horns. But Goodman is convinced that there’s more to picture than the public are aware of:

‘If you look at Cold War historical examples where there was real serious tension between two sides, and it was then diffused, almost always there was some secret back channel or third party that intervened. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, as far as the general public where concerned it was really terrifying. What we didn’t know till much later on was that there was a secret telephone channel between Moscow and Washington where they were agreeing to diffuse the situation without either looking too silly about it.’

Can you imagine the conversation that would entail today? ‘I know Sir but Donald is very upset about the Golden Globes and he just can’t be seen to back down right now, not with Meryl Streep on his case. His celebrity image is very important to him Sir’.  

Of course, Donald’s inflated ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a time of conflict, despite popular disapproval. According to Goodman, ‘the more aggressive you are in speech the less aggressive you need to be in action’. He compares it to two bullies standing up to one another, both not wanting to throw the first punch but equally not wanting to back down first. This is where China comes in to ‘and act as a mediator and keep things from getting too severe’. And if they fail? We move to mid-wales. 

‘In the Cold War, British scientists tried to work out where would be the safest place if London was hit with a nuclear weapon, it’s as always thought that it would be somewhere in mid-Wales. We’ll all go hide in Aberystwyth by the seaside. That would be the safest thing to do.’

Summer cottage share, anyone?

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