Not too far away from Seattle, Washington there are eight ballistic-missile submarines carrying the world’s large shipments of nuclear weapons.
The 560-foot-long black submarines are docked at the Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, hauling what is described by Rick Anderson in a recent Los Angeles Times article as “the largest concentration of deployed nuclear weapons in the US.”
“If it were a sovereign nation,” Anderson wrote, quoting government estimates, “Washington State would be the third-largest nuclear-weapons power in the world.”
One is often haunted by this manifest reality, especially whenever a nuclear crisis between the US and North Korea flares up, such as the one which started late July. At the time, US President Donald Trump threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury like the world has never seen before”, while Kim Jong-un seemed undaunted.
Americans are assured by their military power – both conventional and nuclear. Most people here are either not aware, or simply do not care, about the disparity between their country’s nuclear capabilities and the miniscule nuclear weapons program operated by North Korea.
Visiting Kitsap-Bangor early August, US Defense Secretary, James N. Mattis, toured the USS Kentucky and declared that the submarine is ready for action, if needed.
The nuclear load that the USS Kentucky alone carries is equal to 1,400 bombs, the size of which the US dropped and subsequently destroyed Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.
North Korea’s saber-rattling in recent weeks – which are a repeat of previous episodes such as in April of this year and twice last year – should be cause for alarm. But far scarier is the fact that North Korea’s entire nuclear stockpiles consist of 60 nuclear weapons, compared with 6,970 owned by the US, out of which 1,750 are operational.
To place these numbers in a global perspective, there are an estimated 15,000 nuclear weapons, worldwide.
While the North Koreans require a sixth successful test to put a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), the US had conducting 1,030 such nuclear tests, starting in July 1945.
Surely, one cannot excuse the foolish and desperate behavior of Pyongyang and its ‘beloved leader’. But the truth is Kim Jong-un is behaving in a way consistent with the legacy of his forefathers – paranoid dictators, desperate to survive amid global rivalries and an old regional war that has never truly ended.
Indeed, there is more to this crisis than Kim Jong-un and his unpredictable antics.
In mainstream media, North Korea is often referred to as a ‘highly secretive nation’. Such references give pundits and politicians an uncontested platform to make whatever assumptions that suit them. But the legacy of the Korean War (1950-53), which divided Korea and its peoples is hardly a secret. An estimated 4 million people were killed in that most savage war, including 2 million civilians.
The US and its allies fought that war under the flag of the nascent United Nations. It is not very difficult to imagine why North Koreans detest the US, distrust US allies and loathe the UN and its repeated sanctions, especially as the country often suffers from food insecurity – among others problems.
The North Korean leadership must also be following the development between Iran and the US regarding the nuclear deal signed in 2015.
While the two issues are often discussed separately, they must be linked for various reasons.
One of these reasons is that North Korea, too, reached several understandings with the US through mediators in the 1990s and 2000s to curb its nuclear program. In 2005, it agreed to ditch “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”
The issue was never pursued with the necessary seriousness, partly because the US requires some kind of threat to justify its military presence in East Asia, in order to challenge the rising Chinese influence there.
But the cost of that policy comes at a high price, as the nuclear menace is once again emerging, repeating previous scenarios and setting the stage for an all-out conflict.
Iran has no nuclear weapons. The nuclear deal it reached with the west – officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action – required the lifting of most sanctions on Tehran, in exchange for the latter curbing its nuclear program.
However, following the agreement, a short-lived period of relative calm between Tehran and Washington ended with renewed hostility. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is pushing for more sanctions against Iran, prompting Iranian President, Hasan Rouhani, to warn that his country is ready to cancel the nuclear deal ‘within hours’ if new sanctions are imposed.
Rouhani dubbed Washington “not a good partner.”
Having also reached their own conclusions that Washington is “not a good partner”, the North Koreans seem determine to acquire the ICBM-class ballistic missiles, needed to miniaturize nuclear weapons to fit warheads. By achieving this disturbing milestone, Pyongyang would feel that it has a good chance to reach a more concrete agreement in future negotiations with Washington.
The latter, at least for now, is using the flare-up with North Korea to further advance its ‘pivot to Asia’, a thus-far failed process that began under the administration of Barack Obama. The motive behind the policy is encircling China with US allies and military hardware that would prevent the Chinese military from expanding its influence past its immediate territorial waters.
Certainly, China has been frustrated by North Korea’s behavior for some time and has, in fact, joined Russia and others to mount more UN sanctions on Pyongyang. However, considering that China fully understands that Washington’s behavior is largely motivated by its desire to halt an expansionist China, Beijing knows that the battle for North Korea is also a fight for China’s own regional leadership.
In a recent editorial, the ‘Global Times’, published by the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily had this message for both Washington and Pyongyang:
“If North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral,” it wrote. But if the US and its ally, South Korea, take on Pyongyang and try to “overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”
While many in Washington focused on the word ‘neutral’, they paid little heed to the phrase “will prevent them.” China is clearly speaking of a military intervention, as both China and North Korea are still allies following a treaty they signed in 1961.
Both Trump and Kim are dubious figures, driven by fragile egos and unsound judgement. Yet, they are both in a position that, if not reigned in soon, could threaten global security and the lives of millions.
Yet, the problem is far greater than two unhinged leaders. There are seven other countries that possess nuclear weapons. They are Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, China and France. These weapons have only one horrific use.
If the intention is, indeed, to make the world a safe place, there is no need for anyone to possess them, for ‘deterrence’ purposes or any other. Neither Washington, nor Pyongyang, Tel Aviv or anyone else should hold the world hostage, exacting political and economic ransom in exchange for not destroying our planet.
Investing in such evil at a time where the world is already suffering from war, economic inequality, hunger and climate disasters, is the very definition of madness.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California. Visit his website: www.ramzybaroud.net.