On August 8, 2017, following a news report that North Korea had succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to fit its class of intercontinental ballistic missiles, President Trump, on a working vacation at his Trump golf resort in Bridgewater, New Jersey, proclaimed “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States . . . they will be met by fire and fury like the world has never seen”. I have been trying to imagine what this unprecedented fire and fury would look, smell, and feel like. In his peace declaration commemorating the 72nd A-bomb anniversary the mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, provides some hints as he invites us to imagine what happened in Hiroshima that fatal day of August 6, 1945 at 8:15 am:
“Let’s imagine for a moment what happened under that roiling mushroom cloud. Pika — the penetrating flash, extreme radiation and heat. Don — the earth-shattering roar and blast. As the blackness lifts, the scenes emerging into view reveal countless scattered corpses charred beyond recognition even as man or woman. Stepping between the corpses, badly burned, nearly naked figures with blackened faces, singed hair, and tattered, dangling skin wander through spreading flames, looking for water. The rivers in front of you are filled with bodies; the riverbanks so crowded with burnt, half-naked victims you have no place to step. This is truly hell”.
The mayor of Nagasaki, Tomihisa Taue, in his 72nd A-bomb anniversary peace declaration, mirrors this horrific image,
“On that day, the furious blast and heat rays reduced the city of Nagasaki to a charred expanse of land. People whose skin hung down in strips staggered around the ruined city looking for their families. A dumbfounded mother stood beside her child who had been burnt black. Every corner of the city was like a landscape from hell. Unable to obtain adequate medical treatment many of these people fell dead, one by one”.
Science has made great advances in the development of nuclear arms, and the power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki pales in comparison to the power of today’s nuclear arsenals. Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombings created hell on Earth, and it seems almost impossible to imagine what the fire and fury that Mr. Trump talks about would amount to. I wonder whether Mr. Trump has an idea of the degree of hell that he can unleash if he sees it fit to do so. Like I am doing here, he may have looked back at the pictures of the charred remains of the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and of the wounds on the bodies of those who were not instantly incinerated. In fact, I do not think that it is a coincidence that Mr. Trump’s threat to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) resembles President Truman’s threat to Japan made in early August, 72 years ago. Calling for Japan’s surrender, Mr. Truman warned Japan to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth“.
Mr. Trump’s threats to the DPRK follow a series of threats directed at the USA and its Southeast Asian allies by the DPRK’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un and his military leaders. It is likely that a threat delivered on August 7, 2017, by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to a gathering of foreign ministers from the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and other Southeast Asian countries, was instrumental in Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” threat of August 8, 2017. As Mr. Ri Yong Ho told this gathering, “Should the US pounce upon the DPRK with military force at last, the DPRK is ready to teach the US a severe lesson with its strategic nuclear force”.
Behavioral science tells us that there are a limited number of possible responses to a threat. One is a counter threat, another is attack, and yet another subordination. Each of these responses represents an obstacle to peace. A fourth approach is an offer of dialogue, which, if taken upon, can be a catalyst of peace. If Mr. Trump launches a preemptive strike in response to the threats of Mr. Kim Jong Un, it is likely that China will come to the aid of the DPRK, irrespective of whether the preemptive strike is nuclear or conventional. An English language editorial in China’s unofficial state newspaper, Global Times, targeted at an international audience, suggests as much: “If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.” If Mr. Kim Jong Un launches an attack on the USA in response to Mr. Trump’s threats China will likely remain neutral at first: “China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral”.
Judging by what has transpired thus far, neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Kim Jong Un can be expected to respond submissively to the threats of the other, and so additional counter-threats, attacks, or offers of dialogue are options remaining to them. I expect that threats and counter-threats will prevail for a while and then taper off unless and until the DPRK launches more missiles or conducts another nuclear test. For Mr. Trump issuing threats scores points with his supporters and bumps up his approval ratings. For Mr. Kim Jong Un issuing threats signals to his military command that he is in charge and may help keep challenges to his regime from within the military at bay. The danger to the world is the possibility that someone misreads a radar image or misinterprets a military training exercise as ‘the real thing’ and sets in motion the chain of events that leads to either Mr. Trump or Mr. Kim Jong Un, or both, pushing buttons to launch nuclear warheads. The reality is that both in the democratic USA and in the DPKR dictatorship the decision to rain fire and fury on the citizens of another country rests with the one man at the top.
As a scientist, I share the view of other concerned scientists that there are no military options to the North Korea issue and that dialogue is the only viable option. Both as a scientist and as a private citizen, I believe that a nuclear strike of any kind, irrespective of who is carrying it out, is morally unacceptable and a crime against not just human life but against all of life.
I am familiar with the arguments for nuclear deterrence and for so-called justified nuclear strikes. As a young man I had heated debates with my step-mother about whether or not the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were justified. My step-mother spent part of her early youth in a Japanese internment camp in Indonesia. Her Dutch family was rounded up by the Japanese army when it invaded Indonesia in 1942 and she and her mother were interned in one of these infamous camps where an estimated 3,000 Dutch women and children perished. She stated that the nuclear bombings saved her life because they led to her liberation from the camp. The policy of the Japanese military regarding foreign women and children in internment camps and male prisoners of war toward the end of WWII was “kill all leave no traces” (1). General McArthur wanted to liberate Java but was ordered not do to so by the joint chiefs and President Roosevelt. It was indeed Japan’s 1945 surrender to the Allied Forces brought on by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombings that led to the liberation of the survivors of the internment camps and the surviving prisoners of war. While I feel great joy that the lives of my step-mother and other surviving victims of Japan’s wartime aggression were saved, I continue to believe that nothing justifies unleashing hell on earth through a nuclear attack. The fact that my step-mother and I had this debate illustrates the insanity of war.
If dialogue is the only option for the North Korean crisis, what is the outlook for a successful dialogue between the USA and the DPRK? It is actually quite good. While Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father, engaged in military first politics, Kim Jong Un has launched a new doctrine calling for simultaneous progress on nuclear deterrence and economic development. Work in political science suggests that the DPRK will start focusing on its prosperity instead of its self-preservation once it no longer has to worry about its own destruction (13). Political scientist John Delury, a member of the nonpartisan and nongovernmental National Committee on North Korea, sees the prospects for peace this way:
“Trump can now help him pivot to the economy, as Kim appears to have wanted to do all along. However unlikely a pair the two might seem, Kim and Trump are well positioned to strike the kind of deal that could lower the grave risks both their countries (and the region) now face. Such a move would also allow Trump to reaffirm U.S. leadership in a region critical to U.S. interests, and to finally start resolving a problem that has bedeviled every U.S. President since Harry Truman.”
I believe that the prospects for peace as outlined by John Delury are real, but it will take statesmanship and savvy, not brinkmanship and bluster to realize them.
Nobel Prize Laureate Niko Tinbergen writes that scientific research is one of the finest occupations of our mind, and ads that, with art and religion, science is one of the uniquely human ways of meeting nature, in fact the most active way. By developing ways to harness some of the fundamental powers of nature, science has brought us hell on earth in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science also brings us new insights into the natural bases of peace. Rather than the traditional perception of nature as an arena of unmitigated violent competition, new fields like peace ethology show us that life sustains itself primarily through networking, rather than through combat (2). Applying what science teaches us about our evolved abilities for peace and how to harness them will not bring us heaven on earth, but it will surely move us away from human-made gates of hell.
Dr. Peter Verbeek is an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He teaches in the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program and does research on how humans and other animals make and sustain peace.
Footnotes: 1) Stichting Japanse Ereschulden – English; 2) Verbeek, P. & Peters, B.A. (Forthcoming). Peace ethology: Behavioral processes and systems of peace. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Publishers.