This January 25, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight, meaning that the world is on the brink of destruction because of a rise in international tension against the background of nuclear weaponry. The numbers are hard to come by but various estimates put the total at between 15,000 and 20,000 in the hands of just nine of the 195 countries on the planet, mostly Russia (6,850) and the United States (6,450), according to the Federation of American Scientists. The others are France (300), China (270), United Kingdom (215), Pakistan (140), India (130), Israel (80) and North Korea (15).
Russia and the U.S. are in the lead because of the mindless arms race that followed the Second World War, with mutually assured destruction being the primary means of deterrence. The Global Zero group recently cited a report in the Journal Earth’s Future indicating that the detonation of only 100 of those nuclear weapons would devastate the earth for at least 25 years and lead to global famine.
This is why, regardless of what journalists are fond of calling the optics that surrounded the June 12 meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong Un, the subject of denuclearization was of critical global importance. Kim’s nuclear arsenal can reach much of the planet, including parts of the U.S. and a war would inevitably embroil other countries.
North Korea has remained under one-man rule since the end of the three-year war with the South and isolated from the rest of the world except for China. Sporadic initiatives to woo the North into transforming the armistice that ended the war into a lasting peace failed but the issue grew urgent in 2003 when North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and announced a couple of years later that it had nuclear arms.
Some analysts estimate the North has as many as 60 such weapons but, in the eyes of Washington and the rest of the world, even one in the hands of a mercurial ruler disassociated from the world’s political institutions is too many. The efforts to woo the North into the community of nations took on an special urgency, with offers of security guarantees and lavish aid thrown in, when threats failed.
Such efforts ran into the Ghaddafi syndrome: Libya’s strongman Muammar Ghaddafi gave up his nuclear ambitions and was not only ousted from office but brutally and publicly killed. The three generations of Kims who have ruled North Korea for more than six decades know about self-preservation.
That is the background against which Trump met with Kim in a resort island in Singapore. It would have been naïve to think that substantial agreement would emerge from a relatively brief meeting between the two leaders and it did not. But if it has set the stage for genuine rapproachment that could see Kim surrendering his nuclear arsenal and sign a peace treaty finally with the South, then the meeting would have met its basic objective. But there is good cause for pessimism.
Trump did not come away with any agreement of substance and it was Kim who gained the advantage, a 33-year-old mercurial leader whose country is shunned as a pariah state got to sit down with the most powerful leader in the world and seemingly gave away little for the privilege of doing so. It is regrettable also that the Kim dynasty’s horrid human rights was apparently not a topic for discussion, though Trump would probably argue that it could be on a later agenda.
Trump’s success in getting Kim to meet has been tarnished also by the way the president treated America’s closest allies just a few days earlier when he pulled out of the closing statement from the Group of 7 industrialized meeting in Canada because of a peeve over comments by the host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In international affairs it does not look good to attack your friends and at the same time make merry with your enemy.
Of course, Trump holds no brief for the established order, whether at home or abroad, so the shake-up which he has engineered against allies over trade is in keeping with his style of governing and his political agenda. But while he may not mind antagonizing England, Germany, France, Canada and other allies now, he may soon come to realize that, indeed, “no man is an island.”