NEWS

How the US and North Korea could stumble into a nuclear war

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock forward 30 seconds on Jan. 25, pushing humanity's proximity to disaster at a symbolic and alarming two minutes to midnight.


The organization has adjusted the Doomsday Clock yearly since 1947. Though the Bulletin bases its clock's position on multiple global threats, this year, it highlighted the bellicose behavior of President Donald Trump toward North Korea and his administration's nuclear weapons posturing.

A timeline of the Doomsday Clock's setting from 1947 through 2017. (Image from Wikipedia User Fastfission)

"To call the world nuclear situation dire is to understate the danger, and its immediacy," Rachel Bronson, the president and CEO of the Bulletin, said during a press briefing. It's "the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday," she added. "As close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War."

One of the Bulletin's major concerns is about an "oops" moment of nuclear proportions involving the evolving nuclear arsenal of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Also Read: Experts say missile defense alone won't stop growing North Korea nuke threat

"Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions by both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation," the Bulletin said in a statement.

Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, echoed this concern in an interview with Business Insider earlier in January.

"I don't think the North Koreans would ever deliberately use the nuclear weapons unless they thought they were being invaded; that we might invade them, or they might think — wrongly — that we were invading them," said Lewis, who also publishes Arms Control Wonk, a site about nuclear arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation.

Here's how Lewis and others think North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., and possibly Japan could stumble into a limited nuclear exchange.

The dangerous and fuzzy math of miscalculation

Atomic bomb explodes on Bikini Atoll in 1946.

Lewis, who has deeply studied East-Asian nuclear history, and especially that of China's, points out that the apparent growing competence of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs has likely made Kim and his advisors feel more secure on a day-to-day basis.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a greater risk of panic within the isolated nation — and a grievous error.

"It's called miscalculation, where one side makes a calculation that war is inevitable," Lewis said. "They don't think that they're starting a war, they just think they're getting a jump on the other."

War history is peppered with instances of miscalculation and preemptive attacks, including Japan's deadly assault on Pearl Harbor during World War II.

"The Japanese thought that they would probably lose. So you think, 'Why in the hell are they doing this?'" Lewis said. "They thought war was inevitable, and that their best chance of surviving was to go first."

Lewis added this is the canonical case of miscalculation: "Where one side says, 'I don't want to do this, and I'm probably even going to lose if I do this, but I'm certainly going to lose if I do nothing. If I do nothing, I will certainly be attacked and I will certainly be destroyed. Whereas if I take this opportunity now, maybe I have only a 10% or a 20% or a 30% chance of getting out alive ... and then he pushes the metaphorical button."

Sailors stand amid wrecked planes at the Ford Island seaplane base, watching as USS Shaw (DD-373) explodes in the center background. (U.S. Navy photo)

The scenario that Lewis, the Bulletin, and others who watch North Korean tensions with the U.S. — as well as allies South Korea and Japan — deeply worry about is if Kim and his advisors incorrectly interpret military activity around the Korean Peninsula.

"The North Koreans, when they write official statements about what their nuclear posture or doctrine is, the phrase they use is 'deter and repel.' So 'deter' means deter," Lewis said, noting that the country's nuclear arsenal is becoming its primary deterrent for conflict. "But 'repel' means if the deterrent fails, and the United States launches an invasion, they will use nuclear weapons to try and repel the invasion — to try to destroy U.S. forces throughout South Korea and Japan, rather than letting the United States ... build up an invasion force and then roll in."

Lewis says the trigger to such a crisis has become more likely with the election of President Trump and his use of bellicose tweets and statements targeting Kim.

Let's say we're doing a large military exercise with South Koreans, which always — to the North Koreans — looks like preparations for an invasion, where you're flooding forces in," Lewis said. "If that occur against a crisis, where the North Koreans actually think an invasion is likely, and the Trump says something that they misinterpret, you might get into spot where it's not that they wanted to use the nuclear weapons, but they concluded an invasion was likely, and this was their last best chance to repel. And that's what scares the shit out of me.

The move would likely trigger a powerful U.S. military response. To illustrate the consequences of a return attack, consider a different and "best-case" scenario of limited conflict with North Korea, where the U.S. and its allies try to neutralize Kim's nuclear and conventional weapons — and no nukes are used.

"[Suppose] in the space of, say, three hours, we could destroy all of the 8,000 to 10,000 hardened sites of North Korean artillery that Seoul, South Korea, is in range of," Kori Schake, who studies military history and contemporary conflicts at the Hoover Institution, said on a Nov. 17 episode of the Pod Save The World podcast. "Even in that [scenario] — which would be a level of military virtuosity unimaginable — you're still probably talking 300,000 dead South Koreans."

Other estimates suggest millions could die, since Seoul (South Korea's capital) and its 25 million residents, including tens of thousands of U.S. forces, are just 35 miles from the North Korean border.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, greets Republic of Korea Air Force Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo, chairman of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the start of the 42nd Military Committee Meeting at the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff Headquarters in Seoul, Republic of Korea, Oct. 27, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

How to step back from the brink

Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University and a Bulletin chair member, said Thursday that there is still time to turn back the clock.

"It is not yet midnight and we have moved back from the brink in the past," Krauss said.

The Bulletin makes a few recommendations to ease tensions with North Korea and avert a nuclear disaster:

  • First and foremost, it said: "U.S. President Donald Trump should refrain from provocative rhetoric regarding North Korea, recognizing the impossibility of predicting North Korean reactions."
  • Second, the U.S. should preemptively open military and diplomatic lines of communication with North Korea — not to signal weakness, but to show "that while Washington fully intends to defend itself and its allies from any attack with a devastating retaliatory response, it does not otherwise intend to attack North Korea or pursue regime change."
  • And finally: "The world community should pursue, as a short-term goal, the cessation of North Korea's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile tests. North Korea is the only country to violate the norm against nuclear testing in 20 years. Over time, the United States should seek North Korea's signature on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — and then, along with China, at long last also ratify the treaty."

Paradoxically, Lewis says the advent of a proven and substantial North Korean nuclear arsenal itself could open communications channels and opportunities for diplomacy.

Also Read: The US is ready to hit North Korea with tactical nukes

The deterrence it provides could prompt the U.S. and its allies to relax military activity and reduce the chances of a deadly mistake.

"That is generally a good bargain, but if it goes wrong, the consequences are tremendous," Lewis said.

On the other hand, Lewis said, North Korea could use its deterrence "and spend it on being awful" by "sinking more South Korean ships, shelling more South Korean islands, initiating more crises" and continuing its history of horrifying human-rights abuses.

"I don't want to be optimistic, because it could really, truly go either way — North Korea could become more aggressive; North Korea could become less aggressive. But we should wait and see," Lewis said. "You don't want to prejudge something like that and foreclose what could be a chance at peace."

Trump vows to keep the US leading in all things space

U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to maintain U.S. dominance in space as China, Russia, and other countries make advances in the race to explore the moon, Mars, and other planets.

"America will always be the first in space," Trump said in a speech at the White House on June 18, 2018, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence and the National Space Council advisory body he created in 2017.

"My administration is reclaiming America's heritage as the world's greatest space-faring nation," Trump said. "We don't want China and Russia and other countries leading us. We've always led."

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This Microsoft training fast tracks veterans into sweet tech careers

Solaire Brown (formerly Sanderson) was a happy, gung-ho Marine sergeant deployed in Afghanistan when she realized her military career was about to change. She was tasked with finding the right fit for her post-military life – and she knew she wanted to be prepared.

Injuries sustained during mine-resistant vehicle training had led to surgeries and functional recovery and it became clear Brown would no longer be able to operate at the level she expected of herself as a Marine.

Like many of the 200,000 service members exiting the military each year, Brown knew her military training could make her a valuable asset as an employee, but she was unsure of how her skills might specifically translate to employment in the civilian world.

Enter Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA), a program Microsoft started in 2013 to provide transitioning service members and veterans with critical career skills required for today's growing technology industry.

Keep reading... Show less

Why 'grunt graffiti' should be considered an art movement

Art comes in all forms. You can look at a Rembrandt painting and say his mastery of shadows was the antithesis of the Baroque movement that characterized much of 17th-century Europe. You might scoff at a contemporary art piece that, to you, looks like a coffee spill on some printer paper but, according to the artist, "like, totally captures the spirit of America and stuff."

While we can all objectively say that the coffee-stained paper isn't going to be studied by scholars hundreds of years from now, both of these examples are, technically, art. That's because art isn't defined by its quality but rather by the expression of the artist. To quote the American poet Muriel Rukeyser,

"a work of art is one through which the consciousness of the artist is able to give its emotion to anyone who is prepared to receive them. There is no such thing as bad art."

In some senses, Leonardo da Vinci's anatomically correct Vitruvian Man and that giant wang that some infantryman drew in the porta-john in Iraq are more similar than you realize. Not only is a penis central to content of both works — both also fall in line with a given art movement.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This band hires vets — especially when they go on tour

As veterans re-enter the civilian workforce, many struggle to make the transition. This is why opportunities (ahem — touring with famous heavy metal bands) for employment are so important. Five Finger Death Punch has made it a mission to offer such opportunities.

Keep reading... Show less

5 important rules to remember while handling a detainee

When allied forces man the front lines, it's fairly common to come in contact with local nationals that live in the area. Although the majority of the people you'll encounter out there want nothing to do with international politics, those who are fighting against you will find it easy to blend into their surroundings, remaining undetected. Our nation's enemies don't wear a standardized uniform, making them incredibly tough to safely identify and detain.

For the most part, all residents are treated as innocent bystanders — until they give troops a reason suspect otherwise. When ground forces encounter a threat among the local population, troops must take every precaution in order to maintain safety for all — the threat of explosive attack is constant.

These are the five critical rules to detaining an enemy that just might save the lives of troops and bystanders alike.

Keep reading... Show less
History
Allison Wild

This is the battle behind 'the Star-Spangled Banner'

The Star-Spangled Banner" is known from sea to shining sea, but few know the circumstances under which Francis Scott Key wrote America's national anthem. Oddly enough, it was penned just after the short but bloody Battle of Baltimore.

In September of 1814—two years into the war between the U.K. and the U.S.—the British navy turned its attention towards Baltimore, Maryland. As a busy port, the city would either prove a devastating American loss, or a crucial victory if they managed to thwart the attack on Baltimore Harbor's Fort McHenry.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

This is Russia's airborne combat armored vehicle

Paratroopers are a force to be reckoned with. They can slip far behind enemy lines and wreak havoc against an enemy's support units, making life easier for those in the main assault and striking fear into those who assumed they were safely behind defenses. What's worse (for the enemy), after the initial airborne assault, you're left with the famous "little groups of paratroopers" — small pockets of young men brave enough to jump out of an airplane, all armed to the teeth, ready to defend themselves, and devoid of supervision.

But for as daring and lethal as paratroopers are, they're still, essentially, light infantry once they hit the ground. Light infantry can do a lot of things, but when they're tasked with hitting prepared positions or facing off against enemy tanks, they tend to take heavy casualties.

So, how do you reinforce troops that drop from the sky? You drop armor out of the sky, too.

Keep reading... Show less

3 gifts you get from having military parents

Who knew that folding clothes the "navy way" and putting on sheets so tight that you could bounce a quarter off of them would have such a profound affect on my life.

I grew up in Virginia Beach, where most students came from military families and knew what it was like to have military parents. They knew the struggle of parents who had to leave for months at a time, the amount of discipline that was applied to daily chores and homework, and of course the expectation to succeed at anything you do.

Keep reading... Show less