On March 8, 1983 U.S. President Ronald Reagan, in a speech to the National Association of evangelicals in Orlando, Florida referred to the Soviet Union for the first time as the “Evil empire.” In his developing “roll back” strategy against the encroachments of communism, Reagan openly called for the West to begin the process of “writing the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union.”
These comments unsettled many in Moscow, and caused abject terror throughout the Soviet military. Yuri Andropov, the ailing Soviet leader, was already by this point utterly convinced that the Unites States of America was planning to launch an imminent and massive preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. The aim of the U.S. strike, so Andropov thought, was to bring the Soviets down to their knees and therefore secure the West’s hegemony in what the West believed was an approaching post-communist new world order.
It was something Andropov was determined, at all costs, to either avoid or react effectively to. He had resolved that when this U.S. first strike did come, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction would mean that there would be nothing left of America to survive what he saw as such an impetuous attack.
The Soviet military therefore acted accordingly, and began to enshrine a belief in a “U.S. preemptive first strike” as standard and accepted Soviet military thinking of the time. In 1983, the Soviets did not believe it was a question of “if” the U.S. would attack, but “when.”
So, on the morning of September 26, 1983, Lt. Col Stanislav Petrov took his seat as Commander of the top secret Soviet military command center, located just outside of Moscow. It was to be a day he would never forget. Only a small handful of men since the dawn of time can genuinely lay a claim to having affected the course of human history, Lt. Col Stanislav Petrov can certainly make such a claim. Petrov’s cool head single handedly saved the whole world from certain annihilation that late September morning.
At age 44, Petrov’s job was simple—he was to monitor the Soviet Union’s early warning satellites and act accordingly in the event of a hostile United States launch. He was doing just that when his radar screens showed that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched by the U.S. and were racing towards the Soviet Union.
All his training and all Red Army protocol demanded that he act in a very defined and specific way – pick up the telephone and order an immediate and full nuclear counter strike against the United States. But he didn’t. Petrov did not order the counter strike because his “gut instinct” told him that the warnings were a hoax, a malfunction of some sort, a glitch. So, for twenty minutes he waited, and sweated. He waited to see if he was correct. Holding out against the most enormous pressure, Petrov refused categorically to initiate the Soviets retaliatory launch protocols and thereby trigger a certain nuclear Armageddon. Twenty-five minutes later, when the bombs did not start to fall, he realized at last, that he was right.
It later emerged that the false alarm was the result of a Soviet satellite mistaking the reflection of the sun’s rays off the tops of clouds for a missile launch. The world had a lucky escape that day; another morning with another man or woman in charge and human history could have been irrevocably different.
This past week at the United Nations, President Donald Trump gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency so far. Using the most unequivocal and direct language, President Trump addressed the burgeoning issue of North Korea head on, and in the clearest language possible threatened to “…totally destroy North Korea.”
Trump is right in making such a public statement. It is necessary to be absolutely unequivocal in a time such as this. At this point it seems obvious that Kim Jong Un wants to acquire nuclear weapons so badly, and achieve the ability to hit the United States with them so much, that sanctions, threats and other types of economic incentives will no longer work.
Pyongyang is not going to abandon its goal of achieving a deliverable nuclear weapons system. As a result, short of direct intervention, North Korea will get deliverable nuclear weapons soon. A North Korean nuke is practically a forgone conclusion at this point. North Korea, Japan, the South Korean’s and the world need to know where Trump and America stand.
Now they do, and it couldn’t be more clear.
Yet huge danger lays just up ahead. This North Korean nuclear device will pose at least three significant problems for the United States and her allies. The most immediate threat is also the most obvious one; that North Korea may try to use this device against the United States of America directly. This is perhaps the most unlikely outcome of the three, at least at this point.
The other two consequences for the West are much more understated and subtle, yet no less dangerous for it. The immediate victim of a viable North Korean weapon will be the alliance system that currently exists in East Asia. The day that sees North Korea get a deliverable nuke, will be the same day that U.S. influence in the region begins to plummet.
South Korea and Japan depend exclusively on the United States for their own security, and currently sit underneath the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This is the reason Japan and North Korea have not, up until this point, sought their own nuclear arsenal. As a North Korean nuclear weapon becomes a present day reality, this will increasingly lead others to question the credibility of the United States’ own commitment to defend Japan and South Korea.
Would the U.S. really launch a full retaliatory nuclear strike against North Korea, risking their own cities and millions of their own citizens lives, to defend Japan or South Korea? Would the United States risk New York in order to save Seoul? Japan and South Korea are not sure, and neither is Kim Jong-un.
It is this “de-coupling” of the U.S. alliance system, and the decline of US influence in East Asia, that would be the first significant victim of a viable North Korean nuclear weapon. It was this exact same fear that led Britain and France during the Cold War to seek their own independent nuclear arsenals, rather than to rely exclusively on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and the promise of future U.S. retaliation should the Soviet Union invade or attack western Europe.
It is likely, therefore, that a North Korean nuclear weapon would also see the beginnings of a general and widespread East Asian nuclear arms race. This nuclear arms race, in turn, leads us into the third significant danger posed by a North Korean weapon.
There is a significant danger that at some point in the future, because relations are so poor and distrust is so prevalent, that Japan, South Korea or the United States through human error or by design, might become locked into a cycle of mutual military escalation that would inevitably end in a nuclear exchange. This is perhaps the greatest danger the world will face in the event of fully nuclear North Korea.
It is highly likely that once North Korea has a viable weapon that they will act much more recklessly towards South Korea or Japan, with non-nuclear conventional weaponry. In North Korean minds it would be unlikely that the United States would intervene in a regional conflict between themselves and Japan or South Korea, as they would at that point have the ability to counter the United States at a nuclear level.
Consider any one the most recent provocative actions by North Korea against the South or against Japan, including firing ICMB’s over the sovereign territory of another independent nation, any of which could spark a rapid escalation. This escalation cycle would be very hard, or even impossible to stop or escape from.
The most pertinent question now is exactly how will nuclear weapons affect the behavior of North Korea on the international stage? Nobody knows for sure, but the unspoken fear is that a nuclear weapon would lead North Korea to act more provocatively, especially towards their most immediate neighbors and empower them to take bigger risks. It is how we handle just such lower-level provocations that will shape the future of East Asia and even the world.
Currently, the United States and the West lack any type of real understanding with North Korea in the way we had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The doors, on both sides, are firmly shut and they are locked. There is no communication or last lines of communication to be used in a crisis. There is, therefore, no margin at all for error.
On its current course, North Korea will acquire a viable and deliverable nuclear weapon soon. Equally, at some point in the near future it is almost certain that North Korea will probe and provoke Japan, South Korea or the United States again, especially when emboldened by a nuclear status they genuinely believe will give them parity with the United States of America.
When that provocation does come, one hopes there will be men and women with cool heads and sound minds, like that demonstrated by Lt Col Stanislav Petrov in 1983, men and women who will pull us all back from the brink. My gut reaction though tells me that this will probably not be the case. East Asia and the world, are about to become much more dangerous places.
“For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matthew 24:7-8).