The ratcheting war of words between the United States and North Korea, including hints of attack, coincided this week with the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, the second and so-far last use of an atomic bomb as an act of war.
That coincidence is worth pondering and speaks to the need for greater diplomacy. War can result when belligerent rhetoric escalates to a point where one side’s promises would cause it to lose credibility by not responding. The world can, as history shows, fall into war because circumstances spin out of control faster than diplomacy can handle.
Or it can avoid disaster, as the Cuban Missile Crisis showed, through diplomacy.
North Korea’s nuclear buildup, its apparent abuse of its own citizens and its destabilizing influence in the region make it a troublesome actor that cannot be ignored. But the use of nuclear weapons must be avoided.
Newspapers 72 years ago were filled with equal parts hope for the end of the Second World War and fear at what the United States had unleashed. The Chicago Tribune published a cartoon of a large and muscular Genie “of atomic power” telling the world, “I am ready to obey thee as thy slave.”
The world already knew what the first bomb had done to Hiroshima. An Associated Press report published Aug. 9, 1945, said, “Japanese perished by uncounted thousands from the scaring, crushing atomic blast that annihilated most of Hiroshima, photographic and other evidence indicated today.”
The overwhelming majority of victims were civilians. The death and suffering has since been well documented.
Since then, the rational doctrine of mutually assured destruction has kept nuclear arsenals at bay. Today, missile defense systems provide a measure of protection, but it would be foolish to expect them to repel an attack by multiple missiles.
However, the worry always has been that one day an irrational leader might obtain such weapons and act recklessly.
Whether North Korea’s Kim Jun-Un is such a leader is unknown. He has in the recent past threatened to strike the White House with nuclear weapons. But that threat was easily dismissed because North Korea lacked the technology to carry it out. Today, however, he apparently has the ability to launch such a weapon at the U.S. territory of Guam, and his military leaders have announced a surprisingly detailed plan to test this later in August, with missiles landing in international waters near Guam’s coast.
This would be a dangerous provocation, coming within a hair’s breath of constituting an attack on the United States. It requires a rational and measured response from the world’s leading superpower, one tempered by history and with an eye toward unintended consequences.
President Trump’s promise of “fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before” was, unfortunately, a further ratcheting of tensions.
There are no easy answers when dealing with someone like Kim. He cannot be left free to intimidate the world with a nuclear arsenal, and yet engaging him in armed conflict would endanger the lives of millions of Koreans, cause untold suffering and perhaps trigger unintended responses from other regional powers, notably China.
The situation calls for massive diplomatic efforts to align nations against Kim, continuing what a recent U.N. Security Council vote on sanctions began. It also likely will require providing Kim a diplomatic escape hatch allowing him to save face while backing down, operating under the assumption he is rational.
Even this might not work, but the events of 72 years ago make it clear that all avenues should be tried before unleashing fire and fury.