DEBATE: With escalating tensions between the US and North Korea, is there a real risk of nuclear action?
YES – Sarah Kendzior, journalist and scholar of authoritarian states.
Unfortunately, there is a real risk – and Donald Trump is more likely to use nuclear weapons than Kim Jong-un. Trump has been obsessed with nuclear weapons since 1984, when he proclaimed he could learn all he needed to know about them in an hour and a half. In 1987, he discussed dropping nuclear weapons on Pakistan and France, and in 1990, he proclaimed their use inevitable. In 2016, Trump asked “if we have them, why not use them?” – a horrifying question that distinguishes him from all predecessors. Unlike previous leaders, whose perspective on nukes was informed by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction or a desire for non-proliferation, Trump appears enthusiastic at the prospect of using them. He has called for a massive increase in the nuclear arsenal and continues to bait North Korea with inflammatory rhetoric. The decision to use nukes is Trump’s alone: no one is in a position to stop him. That spells dangerous times ahead for the world.
NO – Dr John Nilsson-Wright, senior research fellow for northeast Asia with the Asia Programme at Chatham House, and senior lecturer in Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Despite Donald Trump’s bellicose warning of “fire and fury” if North Korea continues its provocations, nuclear war is highly unlikely. US military might is there to deter the DPRK from attacking, and Kim Jong-un is rational and knows that launching an attack, conventional or nuclear, would be suicidal. Trump’s own playing of the military card is a political and psychological move to pressure Pyonyang (and also indirectly Beijing) to change course, but the President – and most importantly his military advisers – know that the preemptive use of military force is unsustainable. There is no guarantee that the US could effectively eliminate all of North Korea’s WMD capabilities, and the response from the North would have devastating consequences for South Korea. However, the risk of conflict escalating through mutual misperception is real, and the world must make all efforts to lower tensions to avoid disaster. Dialogue is an essential part of any solution, despite Trump’s claim that “talking is not the answer”.