Editor’s Note: Dr. Ira Helfand is a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and serves as the co-president of the group’s global federation, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are due to meet Tuesday in Singapore. President Trump impulsively agreed to the summit, has already canceled once, and has entered into these negotiations without any advance planning or apparent strategy for achieving success.
The summit may well end without major progress towards the elimination of nuclear weapons in Korea. But whatever the outcome, the summit must be seen as an early step in a complicated negotiation, and the diplomatic process must continue.
Unfortunately, some in the administration clearly see the summit not as a step towards peace but as a prelude to, possibly even a pretext for, war. National Security Adviser John Bolton has grudgingly welcomed the summit because it will “foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste in negotiations that will never produce the result we want.” In an interview last fall, Bolton argued that “more diplomacy with North Korea, more sanctions … is just giving North Korea more time to increase its nuclear arsenal.”
So, what would happen if the United States were to abandon diplomacy and sanctions and instead pursue a military option?
The specific war plans of North Korea and the United States are not, of course, publicly available. But everything we know suggests that any military conflict would be a disaster on an epic scale.
Some 25 million people live in the Seoul metropolitan area, within range of the massive North Korean artillery batteries just north of the border. Casualties in the first days of a conventional artillery attack on Seoul could exceed 100,000, according to some estimates.
If nuclear weapons were used, the outcome would be even more catastrophic. A North Korean attack on Seoul involving a single, 20-kiloton weapon could kill about 100,000 people and injure nearly half a million, according to a model by Alex Wellerstein, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. If the North Koreans were able to deliver a 240-kiloton bomb – the strength of the largest weapon they have tested so far – that single bomb could kill more than 600,000 people and injure more than 2 1/2 million.
A US nuclear attack on North Korea designed to “guarantee” the elimination of the North’s nuclear and missile programs would probably involve 30 or more weapons set to explode at ground level. The resulting clouds of radioactive fallout would envelop much of North Korea and heavily populated areas of South Korea, killing more than 780,000 people and injuring a million more, the model projects.
With the use of nuclear weapons, we would breach a firewall that the world has worked desperately to maintain since Nagasaki, and we have no idea what lies on the other side. Could such a war be contained? Do the North Koreans have the ability to deliver nuclear weapons to targets in the United States? Would China and Russia be drawn into the fighting? We simply do not know.
But we do know that whatever happens at the summit in Singapore, we must make sure that diplomacy is not abandoned because there is no acceptable military solution to this crisis.
We must learn from this dangerous situation and act to lessen the danger of nuclear war, both in Korea today and in future crises.
The current standoff has drawn attention to a particularly dangerous aspect of US nuclear policy that must be changed. Currently, the president of the United States has the unchecked authority to launch nuclear war. Despite the Constitution’s clear provision that only Congress can declare war, a presidential order to use nuclear weapons does not require congressional, or even cabinet, approval.
Congressman Ted Lieu and Sen. Ed Markey, both Democrats, have introduced important legislation to provide a critically needed check by requiring the president to get congressional authorization to initiate the use of nuclear weapons unless the country is under attack.
Congress should pass this legislation now.
But the United States needs to go further. We need to recognize that the danger posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat to our national security and to the survival of humanity. The United States currently plans to spend some $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years to maintain and enhance its nuclear arsenal. We should instead be working for the security of a world free of these weapons.
A large coalition of civic and religious organizations, professional societies, and city and local governments has endorsed a platform of five common-sense policies that the United States should pursue, including the legislation to restrict presidential authority to launch nuclear weapons. “Back from the Brink: A Call to Prevent Nuclear War” also calls on the United States to adopt a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, to take its nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, and to stop the $1.7-trillion plan to enhance every aspect of its nuclear forces. Most importantly, it calls on the United States to pursue negotiations among all nine nuclear weapons states for a verifiable, enforceable, time-bound agreement to eliminate their nuclear weapons.
We cannot know if such negotiations will be successful. But we do know what will happen if they fail and nuclear weapons are used: an unprecedented catastrophe.