Russian RS-24 Yars nuclear missiles roll into Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on June 24, 2020. Photo: AP
Donald Kirk
Donald Kirk

The world needs to talk about a more dangerous problem than climate change: nuclear weapons

  • The US is considering a ‘no first use’ policy, when states are seeking to modernise their nuclear arsenals
  • Rather than demanding that North Korea alone get rid of its nukes, global denuclearisation should be on the agenda

The prospect of nuclear war is frightening beyond imagination. We talk in the abstract about the millions who would die but are reluctant to accept the reality that the worst might someday come true.

Such talk echoes through the media whenever the question arises of who might strike first. We’re accustomed to hearing aggrieved expressions of doubt and sensitivities. Such talk assumes urgency as the US considers whether to adopt a policy of “no first use”, meaning it would not initiate a nuclear holocaust.

This debate strikes a special chord with Americans, considering the US’ place in global history as the first country to use nuclear weapons. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 led Japan’s Emperor Hirohito to call on his people “to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable”.

With those immortal words, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally, giving up all the territories they had conquered.

In the ecstasy of triumph and relief over Japan’s defeat, it was easy to overlook images of charred, burned bodies and urban wasteland or the long ordeal of those who would suffer and die months or years later from nuclear radiation.
Rather than focus on global denuclearisation, policymakers wonder whether the US should wait for some other country, maybe Russia (estimated to have well over 6,000 nukes, about 700 more than the US), China (which has about 300), or North Korea (which has a few dozen), to conduct the first nuclear strike before firing back.

Some are asking, why give Russia or China the advantage of a first strike when Americans should force the surrender of one or both by striking first, as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?


Hiroshima bomb survivors fear legacy fading as Japan marks 75th anniversary of WWII atomic attack

Hiroshima bomb survivors fear legacy fading as Japan marks 75th anniversary of WWII atomic attack

This debate is insane. Regardless of who struck first, second, third or fourth, the devastation would jeopardise the survival of billions. “Should we continue to fight,” Hirohito warned, “not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilisation.”

Those words ring true today. Nuclear weaponry by now packs far more power than in 1945. North Korea’s sixth and most recent nuclear test, in September 2017, was several times more devastating than the Hiroshima bomb. The US, Russia and China all have warheads capable of wiping out major cities far larger than Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Nor is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un the only leader to claim the need for nukes for self-defence. That’s the rationale of all the eight other members of the nuclear club, which also includes Britain, France, Pakistan, India and Israel.

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Still more are weighing demands to go nuclear. In Asia alone, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are capable of making nuclear weapons if they sense the need, of course, for defence, and Iran is on the way to producing its first warhead.

All these countries are already building up their armed forces. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in wants to strengthen its military, including 550,000 troops, to be able to stand against nearly 1.3 million North Koreans under arms.

Japan’s military machine, with a spending cap of 1 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and limited to less than 250,000 troops, is one of the strongest in the region in terms of weaponry.

Taiwan would need a lot of help from friends, notably the US, but it has nearly 300,000 troops primed to resist vastly superior forces from the Chinese mainland.

Nuclear powers today are modernising their arsenals. America’s ageing nuclear stockpile is said to need updating with more and “better” warheads. As tensions rise across the Pacific, China’s President Xi Jinping is anxious to increase China’s nuclear strength, so far behind that of both Russia and the US.

In the game of nuclear dare and double dare, neither the US nor China would gain an advantage by dropping the first nuclear bomb in warfare since 1945. The other would retaliate while the world responded in horror and terror.

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Rather than demanding that North Korea alone get rid of its nukes, how about suggesting the leaders of the world’s most exclusive club, the nuclear club, negotiate denuclearisation just as they talk about climate change?

However, that idea doesn’t seem to have arisen amid worries about North Korea’s nuclear strength and fears the US may soon decide “we’ll nuke you after you nuke us”.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea