Note: My weekly op-ed.
The late great science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once told a crowd at a convention, “Some of you will see a nuclear war within your lifetime.”
The crowd, to say the least, did not want to hear this.
A few years ago when I was the world’s oldest journalism intern in Washington, D.C., I coined the term “no-name nukes,” in the context of the sentence, “We’re living at Ground Zero for the no-name nuke.”
During my three months residence in D.C. I repeated that statement many times on many occasions.
Not once did anybody ever call me crazy. Heck, not once did anybody ever disagree with me!
Well once actually. A gentleman at the National Press Club thought I was way too optimistic when I said sometime in the next generation a rogue nuke was going to take out D.C.
“Oh I’d say within the next five to ten years,” he said.
I actually got to pose the question to former Secretary of State John Bolton at a small gathering.
Bolton was as forthcoming as it was possible for him to be. He didn’t actually address the question of what we could do if a nuke of unknown origin detonated on our soil, but he did point out where terrorists would get them.
Iran for one of course. Currently run by bona-fide religious crazies who are actually looking forward to Armageddon. How close they are to getting nukes is a matter of some controversy. Some say soon, some say long time to never.
The latter is the more comforting belief, which is why we should consider very carefully whether this is a realistic assessment, or wishful thinking.
Then there’s North Korea. They’re a bandit state with nukes, and Bolton pointed out, they’ll cheerfully sell them to anyone for hard cash.
Now they’re rattling their sabers and threatening to nuke American bases in the Pacific, or even a West Coast city.
It’s hard to tell how seriously to take the Norks. On the one hand, they do a lot of saber rattling. On the other hand, sometimes they do more than just rattle their sabers.
For decade they raided the coast of Japan, kidnapping Japanese citizens. They’ve landed commandos in South Korea for obscure purposes, though we can assume they’re up to no good as they tend to commit suicide to escape capture. They’ve torpedoed South Korean ships and murdered American military personnel at the Demilitarized Zone.
Worse, they’ve done it without consequences.
And that’s nothing compared to what they’ve done to their own people. Estimates of famine-related deaths range between 240,000 and 3,500,000. As many as 200,000 political prisoners are held in North Korean concentration camps under conditions at least as bad as anything in Soviet gulags during Stalin’s reign.
What’s worrisome about this kind of thing is not that it’s evil, but that it makes no sense. What do they gain by this? Evil we can deal with. Crazy is another matter.
If the Norks were merely evil we could appeal to their self-interest, mainly their desire not to be nuked down to bedrock. Same thing that kept the Cold War cold.
Now it could be the Kim family’s kingdom is acting for perfectly sensible reasons. North Korean saber rattling has traditionally prompted massive donations of food from abroad. This could be of no more significance than an infant throwing a tantrum because it’s hungry.
Or maybe they’re just crazy. The scary thing is, we can guess but we just don’t know.
At the end of World War II in the Pacific, after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the U.S. government heard nothing from the Japanese for three days. So they dropped another one. Five days later as a third bomb was being assembled, the emperor broadcast his decision to surrender – and there was an attempted military coup by diehards who dreamed of a glorious death for their entire nation!
And the Japanese weren’t crazy, just alien to our ways of thinking.
It didn’t make a big splash, but we’ve been threatened with nukes before. During the Clinton administration the Chinese were saying openly but without bluster that they figured we weren’t as attached to Taiwan as much as we were to Los Angeles or San Francisco.
That was scary enough, but made sense. The Chinese stated what they wanted, and their judgment of the risks involved. They might be wrong, but their reasoning was perfectly straightforward.
About the North Koreans we mostly just don’t know. A history of oriental despotism, plus two generations of Japanese occupation, plus three generations of communism equals… what?