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Coming Nuclear Winter

14 August 2017 12:11 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


US displays a section of its nuclear arsenal



August marks the two independence days of India and Pakistan, English lawyer Sri Cyril Radcliffe, was given a hasty assignment to draw the boundaries for two nation states, India and Pakistan and he delivered within five weeks. The man who had never visited or been to India or a has had any serious research of the myriad matrices of diversities that layered the land cut across them creating an artificial boundary that would have ramifications for decades to come.

The boundary making is commonly known as the partition which resulted in the largest loss of life out of a short but brutal violent chain of riots in the region. Fast forward the situation to the current context Kashmir has been the site of multiple conflicts and ongoing political violence.
 India and Pakistan have become nuclear powers and are deeply involved in the geo political power struggles that are manifesting beyond the Indian subcontinent with extra regional players such as United States and China at play.

India has surged its troop numbers last week along its eastern border with China, thus India remains on high alert across the porous borders it inherited from its colonial masters. 

Irrespective of the Independence week and hype, global attention remains on the circumstances that are emerging from the making of another porous border which separates North and South Korea.  The Demilitarized zone (DMC) is the zone that separates the two Koreas spanning 250 km which is a result of the armistice that was agreed upon between warring Koreas and the United nations in 1953 effectively ending the Korean War.

The armistice ended the war but was never signed, it was to be signed in 1954 yet the legal document called for a demilitarized zone, which exists to date, yet the separation of the two Koreas created a perpetual conflict situation and the American involvement and the 83 US military bases that are littered across South Korea remains an existential threat to the North.  With 35,000 troops stationed in these bases, South Korea thus accounts as the third largest American military base in the world. 

"Fifty five years on from the Cuban Missile crisis, the 21st Century seems to be sliding into a new moment of nuclear emergency, as  the US and North Korean hostile rhetoric is played purely out in terms of nuclear threats"


Offensive Realist International Relations thinker John J. Mearsheimer emphasized that the most frightening moment of the 20th century was the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Unless one is an ardent fan of cold war history, the gravity of the stand off between American and Soviet navies in 1962 is incomprehensible.

The US Navy set up a surface quarantine line 500 miles from Cuba with a panoply of naval assets including an aircraft carrier,  two cruisers, 22 destroyers and two guided missile  frigates to block the approaching Soviet armada on October  24, 1962 carrying nuclear weapons to be positioned in Soviet silos that were built in Cuba.

This tense blockade according to Mearsheimer was the most dangerous moment that could have triggered a nuclear war in the 20th Century.

Currently nine states that are in possession of nuclear weapons namely United States, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, North Korea, Pakistan and Israel. They cumulatively hold an estimated 15,000 nuclear war heads that could be delivered through an array of missile systems mounted on sea, air and land platforms.  The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed to prevent the expansion of nuclear weapons programs beyond the original five countries which had a programme in 1970. 

The growing nuclear arsenal is in Asia, as nuclear weapons programmes are still ongoing and North Korea has demonstrated an accelerated interest in expanding its Nuclear Arsenal and a failure of the NPT. The NPT is a weak governance mechanism to dissuade the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A state may enter the treaty voluntary and any existing signatory can leave the treaty and face zero 
repercussions or penalties. 

Fifty five years on from the Cuban Missile crisis, the 21st Century seems to be sliding into a new moment of nuclear emergency, as  the US and North Korean hostile rhetoric is played purely out in terms of nuclear threats. 

Kennedy managed to avert the Cuban missile crisis by constantly keeping his generals in check when they were insisting on a strike, Trumps team is mostly made out of generals and he made it a point to emphasis the importance of them from his chief of staff, defence secretary to national security advisor. Plus Trump’s off the cuff remark of ‘fire and fury’ that he will unleash on Korea does not help any de-escalation and it reinforces America’s intention of a military strike as a primary option.

Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State who is the only none military figure in Trumps inner circle  seems to be trying his best to avert a catastrophic outcome, by cautioning the President about going down a militaristic approach in dealing with Kim Jong-Un. His efforts have isolated him more within the ranks as extreme and radical conservatives are beating war drums over Korea. Tillerson may be the next casualty in the Trump cabinet, if the President resorts to a military option.

Trump’s response came in the aftermath of North Korea’s reaction to the latest set of economic sanctions enforced by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which in effect will shut down most of North Korea’s coal, iron and seafood exports, in numbers the sanctions translate as shaving off $1 billion of the $3 billion annual trade revenue. North Korean administration responded with a counter threat to launch a miniaturized nuclear warhead to hit the American pacific island base at Guam. 

Kim Jong-Un as the Kims before him, understood the political and strategic relevance of the nuclear programme; he would have seen fate of countries like Iraq, Syria and even Ukraine who had some level of a nuclear program after they gave up on it. His international political relevance and domestic political stability is both contingent in the ability to demonstrate power, thus the nukes had played the dual role of keeping foreign aggressors at bay and a means to an end to maintain domestic political order. 

On the contrary the US is going for a nuclear option, especially when an American President is seen so close to authorize a nuclear strike, hurts America’s global standing and will create chaos in domestic politics. Yet the bitter truth is that the American president under the Atomic energy act of 1946 has the total control of the American nuclear arsenal. He can authorize or call for a nuclear strike with no consultation of his security establishment and this decision cannot be overridden by any other branch of the government. 

Thus the congress and the judiciary will have no means of containing or influencing the decision once the President takes it. Thus Trump has both the option of launching a nuclear strike and going in for a military engagement with North Korea by using War Powers resolution passed by the US congress in 1973. 

The resolution enables the American president to use the military option for any international campaign when the congress has yet to declare war. As the US congress has the sole right to declare War. Still the president can use the resolution to intervene and seek congressional approval 48 hours after his actions. Thus President Trump virtually has a free hand if he wants to initiate a nuclear strike followed by military intervention 

Level of military tension is so high and it is further aggravated by American live fire exercises that are ongoing currently with Japan and the huge military exercise code named Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, to be conducted by a near 40,000 troop contingent encompassing American and South Korean military personnel. 

China has clearly signalled its strongest reservations for the exercise that is scheduled to take place from 21-23 August. The exercise given the strategic context may bring back the Ghosts of the NATO led operation Able Archer of 1983 which almost took NATO and the USSR to a global war. The question remains, will the burgeoning Asian Century be checked by an Asian Nuclear Winter?

The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)

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