Global Watch

Prospect of nuclear war has world on edge

Donald Trump
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While the crisis surrounding South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is intensifying, another crisis on the other side of the world could change the course of global history if things go wrong.


This past week, 72 years ago, the United States dropped history’s only two nuclear bombs on Japan to end World War II in the Far East.

Although the danger of nuclear war was the dominating feature of the Cold War era – the threat of such a war constantly menacingly hovering over the globe – the knowledge that it would annihilate much of mankind, had a stabilizing effect.

Realizing that nuclear war between the two super powers, the US and Russia, would result in the mutual destruction, had such a deterring effect that the Cold War era was a relatively stable period in world history.  

However, the threat to world peace increased as more states engaged in a race to acquire nuclear arsenals. A main concern remains the fear that a rouge or a terrorist organization might obtain nuclear capability.


It is ironic that the most serious risk of a nuclear exchange, except for the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the US and Russia brought the world to the brink of nuclear war until Russia eventually backed down, again features the US and a Far Eastern nation, North Korea.

The current US-North Korean standoff is potentially more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis since North Korea has upped the ante by continuing, in violation of an international ban, to test nuclear devices, and acts increasingly defiant as international concern intensifies.

Concern is driven by the realization that North Korea’s nuclear capability is becoming more potent. For example, the Hweasong-12, revealed for the first time in April, is an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range of more than 3 700km.

In reaction to North Korea’s belligerence with ongoing missile tests, despite strong US pressure with North Korea’s only ally, China, concurring, the United Nations recently unanimously approved a new and tough round of sanctions on North Korea.

It could cut North Korea’s meager annual export revenue by about a third, impeding its ability to raise cash for its weapons programs, but doubt remains whether China and Russia will fully enforce sanctions despite support for the UN resolution.  

There is, however, general consensus, and the message from Beijing is that China will not come to North Korea’s aid if Pyongyang initiates hostilities, and the US retaliates.

North Korea’s response

In response to the latest sanctions North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported, “The day the United States dares tease our nation with a nuclear weapon and sanctions, the mainland United States will be catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire.”

Officially North Korea announced that it was considering a nuclear missile strike that would create “an enveloping fire” around Guam, which could happen within the next few weeks once the country’s leader   Kim Jong-Un approves the plan for the strike.

Guam is located 3 400km from the Korean Peninsula. The small island is of major strategic military importance to the US, and with 7 000 US military personnel, and strategic bombers based at Andersen Air Force Base a "permanent aircraft carrier," according to the US military.

The reason for selecting Guam as a possible target could be because it can be used by the US as a staging ground for its stealth bombers to attack North Korea.  In recent months as tensions rose, stealth bombers from Guam flew sorties over the Korean Peninsula in a show of force.

Trump’s reaction

Not unexpected, President Trump’s combative reaction rivaled that of North Korea and, in true Trump trade mark style, he twittered and warned North Korea that, "it faces retaliation with fire and fury unlike any the world has seen before".

In the barrage of threats and counter threats that followed, Trump tweeted that North Korea is “looking for trouble” and that he intends to “solve the problem.” He also told North Korea that, “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded,” if the regime of Kim Jong Un should “act unwisely.”

Trying to play down the rhetoric, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded that President Trump was only attempting, “to send a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un would understand, because he doesn't seem to understand diplomatic language.


The trigger, that could set off the catastrophe of the century, lies in the fact that the two antagonists are the unpredictable North Koreans – a secretive and hermetic nation, in so many aspects out of zinc with the rest of the world, and the US with a president as unpredictable as the North Koreans.     

Analysts seem to agree that the unpredictability of both antagonists raises chances of misunderstanding, and/or misperception which in turn could lead to an unintended aggressive action and war.

In the words of Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations, “The more the crisis escalates, the greater the dangers of miscalculation, and the harder it will be for either side to find an exit ramp from a high-stakes crisis.”

As the war of words intensifies, and the world holds its breath as it did in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, cool heads are now required by all who have a part to play. This include China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the allies from the US in the West.

In 1962 President Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev acknowledged that a nuclear war would bring unspeakable devastation and misery – Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un would be well advised to take a lesson from history.

by Garth Cilliers

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