Averting Annihilation

To prevent nuclear catastrophe, we must stand in solidarity with ordinary people across the Korean peninsula.

US fighter planes during the Korean War in 1951–52. US Navy / Wikimedia

In Donald Trump’s hands, US military power is starting to look to many Americans the way it is already seen by people around the world: as a terrifying instrument of raw, indiscriminate violence. But it’s not, at least solely, an empathy with the victims of our forever war that is driving Americans to grapple with their country’s unparalleled capacity for destruction.

It is fear for their own lives — specifically, the fear of dying in a nuclear war instigated by a notoriously erratic president with world-destroying powers at his fingertips.

These fears of nuclear apocalypse were on full display this week, as three full days of nuclear-tinged Trumpisms inspired half-serious jokes about our impending doom across social media. On Tuesday, Trump made his now-infamous comments about unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against North Korea. On Wednesday, in the preferred presidential medium of Twitter, Trump took credit for modernizing the nuclear arsenal — despite the fact that this process began under Obama and will take thirty years (and $1.2 trillion) to complete. Yesterday, Trump wondered aloud whether his initial comments about the DPRK weren’t “tough enough,” thereby ensuring the apocalyptic fervor continues for yet another news cycle.

Trump is clearly capable of heightening atomic terror all on his own, but the media-fed dynamic he inhabits with Kim Jong-un, autocratic leader of the latest nuclear-armed state, exacerbates the situation even further. Between them, they’ve increased public fears of nuclear war like no set of national leaders since Reagan and Andropov.

That said, it’s probably unfair to lay fully half the blame for this heated environment at the feet of Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government. After all, it’s difficult for experts, let alone laypeople, to separate out the real Jong-un from the omnipresent media caricatures tailor-made to reaffirm North Korea’s bogeyman status. This rich and racist tradition of foreign policy journalism drinks deeply of what Hugh Gusterson calls “nuclear orientalism” — essentially, the idea that our nuclear monarchs are calm and rational while those in the East are inscrutable, impulsive, and dangerous.

Clearly Donald “let it be an arms race” Trump poses a challenge to that colonial binary — but it remains to be seen whether he will destroy its legitimacy entirely. As Greg Afinogenov points out over at n+1, the national security establishment would be more than happy to replace Trump with a respectable steward of the nuclear arsenal. Then, having thrown a sheet back over the doomsday devices he exposed, the Serious People could return to planning smaller-scale catastrophes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Contrary to the prevailing narrative, Kim Jong-un is not a madman, and is certainly a more rational actor than his American foil. The increasingly popular idea that Honolulu or Seattle should be reviving duck-and-cover drills or digging public fallout shelters in anticipation of a North Korean first strike is frankly ridiculous. Launching a “bolt from the blue” against the United States, Japan, or anyone else for that matter would be suicidal for the DPRK leadership.

Any nuclear attack would be met by a devastating flurry of counter-strikes from the US, whose military resources — nuclear and otherwise — are so superior to North Korea’s that it’s rather silly to even compare the two. The DPRK nuclear weapons program is worrisome, but it exists because the government is terrified of regime change — an outcome Kim Jong-un has legitimate reason to fear, given US actions in Iraq and Libya.

The real danger — the one that definitely exists right now — is that the two countries could unintentionally reignite the Korean War. The situation has been extraordinarily tense for months (remember the Carl Vinson episode in April?), and Trump’s bellicose comments are exactly the sort of thing that could turn a heated environment into, well, “fire and fury” in a heartbeat. If the president issues something that sounds like a threat, it might be interpreted precisely as such, pushing the other side to take preemptive action in anticipation of an immediate attack.

In a less inflammatory environment, such remarks might be dismissed by the North as merely intemperate and ill-considered. But air strikes and regime change are bandied about in the US media, and some public figures with the president’s ear have taken a stridently hawkish pose against North Korea.

In the past two weeks, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham and former Bush administration official John Bolton both publicly endorsed military action against the DPRK. Their statements shared a disturbing premise: that American lives are inherently more valuable than Korean lives, whether in the South or the North. In the Wall Street Journal, Bolton spoke of an inherent American right to overrule even the wishes of the South Korean government, arguing that “no foreign government, even a close ally, can veto an action to protect Americans from Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons.”

Graham’s comments were similarly nationalistic, arguing that it was better to have thousands “die over there” than have Americans face the remote risk of a North Korean strike. He also implied the president was on board with his plan.

With rhetoric like that making the rounds, US bombers regularly flying over the peninsula, military exercises on the horizon, and Trump blustering KCNA-style about turning the North into a sea of fire, could you really blame Pyongyang for being a little paranoid?

The current standoff does have nuclear implications, and it is these exotic scenarios that drive fears of Trump-imposed annihilation. But the immediate issue is far more concrete and actionable: it involves preventing yet another needless war.

Americans terrified of the Trumpocalypse are, at least abstractly, invested in preserving peace. But for this feeling to become politically potent, it must be transformed into a deep sense of solidarity — with South Koreans, with North Koreans, and with all common people fighting for peace on the peninsula.

This would mean refusing the jingoism of Graham and Bolton, yes, but also rejecting the idea that diplomacy can only occur between ruling elites. Writing in the New York Times earlier this month, Christine Ahn reminded readers that citizen diplomacy has long played a role in easing tensions between nominal enemies, particularly nuclear powers. By instituting a North Korea travel ban, she argued, the US government is shutting down engagement from below at the very time it is desperately needed. This must be rectified.

Doves in the foreign policy establishment are correct in claiming that high-level diplomatic talks with North Korea will lower tensions and lessen the risk of war. But without a popular, internationalist movement demanding them, should we really expect such discussions to materialize? Near as we can tell, the Trump administration rejects the possibility of talks without preconditions — even as it edges the peninsula closer to war.

Wresting diplomacy from elite control is an admittedly lofty goal, as is moving those frightened by nuclear terror to international solidarity. But Americans who fear Trump’s finger on the button are halfway to a transformative recognition — that those who desire peace, wherever they are located, are united in a single struggle. As opponents of militarism and advocates for justice, it’s our job to push them beyond fear and into internationalism.

Time is of the essence: after all, the doomsday clock is ticking.