All efforts to resolve the elevated nuclear tensions in the Korean Peninsula should be subject to extreme caution, due to the potential of massive collateral damage of death, destruction, radiation and environmental collapse.
Reportedly, Washington is drawing up plans for a “bloody nose” military attack on North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program. According to high-level sources, the White House has “dramatically” stepped up preparation for a military solution in recent months amid fears diplomacy is not working.
A few years ago, North Korea was thought to be a decade away from developing a missile that could hit America with nuclear weapons. After Pyongyang’s successful test of intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities in July, the figure has dropped to about a year and a half.
The premise of the proposed conventional military attack is that it will not provoke an escalation of conflict that could have catastrophic consequences for the Korean Peninsula, Japan, East Asia or beyond.
But what if it did?
The “nuclear winter” effect
During our conversation in mid-2000s, Harvard’s Graham Allison, perhaps the leading analyst of the threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, sought to imagine the consequences of a 10-kiloton weapon exploding in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, or any other major American city.
As he put it, “From the epicenter of the blast to a distance of approximately one-third mile, every structure will be destroyed and no one would be left alive. A second circle of destruction extending three-quarters of a mile from ground zero would leave buildings looking like the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. A third circle reaching out 1 mile would be ravaged by fires and radiation.”
There is also a fourth circle, the widest and deadliest of all – the long-term environmental impact of a nuclear conflict.
Ever since the first experiences of nuclear devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has become increasingly obvious that the post-nuclear attack effects pose overwhelming challenges not just locally, but regionally, even internationally.
In the 1980s, independent research teams began to explore not just the immediate possible impact of nuclear strikes but their aftermath scenarios. While military attention focused on the global nuclear exchange, these scientists concentrated on the subsequent massive fires and smoke emissions in the lower atmosphere causing severe short-term environmental after-effects – the so-called “nuclear winter.”
After the mid-80s, the early models of such scenarios led Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to devise treaties to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons from their 1986 peak. In retrospect, those predictions of “nuclear winter” effects were under-estimates.
Building on these pioneering studies by Paul Crutzen and John Birks, recent research indicates that in the aftermath of such nuclear attacks worldwide climatic cooling from stratospheric smoke could cause massive agricultural collapse that would threaten most of humanity with starvation.
At the same time, hawkish observers have sought to discredit the idea of nuclear winter effects because it undermines their political and military objectives. That error has fostered misleading policy conclusions, including the proposition that the US could successfully destroy Russia in a surprise first-strike nuclear attack.
In view of the nuclear winter impact, such an action would be suicidal. Yet, the fact that the Trump administration has rejected all evidence of climate change could foster very different official scenarios in which ultimate risks are downplayed and elusive opportunities magnified.
Thinking the unthinkable
With these imagined futures, the devil is in the details; that is, the extent of the devastation depends on the underlying assumptions. A military strike against North Korean nuclear sites is one thing. An escalation that would involve China and perhaps even Russia in the Korean Peninsula is another.
If the hostilities would be limited to a conventional war, a 2010 RAND study suggests that costs would amount to 60%-70% of South Korea’s annual GDP ($1.4 trillion in 2016). If North Korea detonated a 10-kilotone nuclear weapon in Seoul (mimicking Allison’s terror scenario), the financial costs would be more than 10% of South Korea’s GDP over the ensuing 10 years.
According to current estimates, an escalation of a military conflict on the peninsula could affect upwards of 25 million people on either side of the border, including at least 100,000 U.S. citizens (up to 300,000 or more). If Pyongyang uses only its conventional weapons (which is unlikely given its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and the perception of an “existential” struggle for survival), estimates range from around 30,000 and 300,000 dead in the first days of fighting.
If North Korea would escalate to attacking Japan with ballistic missiles, it could target the greater Tokyo with a population of about 38 million. And that would only be the beginning.
If non-conventional weapons would be seized regionally, the net effect would be comparable to scenarios envisioning a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, in which weapons dropped on cities and industrial areas would unleash firestorms that would put massive amounts of smoke into the upper atmosphere.
That’s where these particles would remain for years, blocking the sun and making the earth’s surface cold, dark and dry.
In such a nightmare scenario, the lingering nuclear winter effects would be felt months after the nuclear bombs detonated across megacities, from Seoul to Tokyo and Shanghai, and beyond. In rural Middle America, farmers are familiar with snow and cold during the winter; but amid nuclear winter Iowans would face Arctic tundra as temperatures could plunge well below zero at night and might not recover above -10 degrees Celsius even during the day.
Agricultural collapse and fears of famines would accelerate on international scale.
Regional escalation, global Ice Age
If, in an extreme scenario, the confrontation in North Korea would escalate and result in an attack by the US on China and Russia with 2,200 weapons, that would affect agriculture worldwide, potentially lead to mass starvation, while generating Ice Age conditions.
Here’s the bottom line: Even a regional nuclear confrontation could have massive global cooling consequences with the associated collateral damage around the world.
Although nuclear munitions and other weapons of mass destruction were first developed in the US and the old Soviet Union, nuclear proliferation has created a high-risk status quo in which six of the nine countries known to have nuclear weapons are in Asia. As India, Pakistan, and North Korea pursue expensive weapons programs, their economic development is penalized but risks are global .
It is the collateral damage that should caution all efforts to resolve the Korean crisis or any possible nuclear confrontation. True, diplomatic negotiations take time and are predicated on difficult trade-offs. Yet, the alternatives seem far, far more costly.
Nuclear winter is a preventable hell.
Dr. Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognized expert of the nascent multipolar world. He is the founder of Difference Group. He has served as Research Director of International Business at India China and America Institute (USA) and Visiting Fellow at Shanghai Institutes for Interational Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see www.differencegroup.net
The commentary is based on the research project, “Nuclear scenarios, climate impacts” by the Difference Group.