I keep hearing people and US officials claim that the threat of a North Korean nuclear strike potentially “incinerating” a US city is the reason we must consider a preventive strike. Let’s talk about this using facts.
The North Korean government is led by Kim Jong Un.
The American government is led by Donald Trump.
The North Korean nuclear arsenal is estimated at about 13-30 warheads with a payload of 10-30 kilotons each.
The American nuclear arsenal is more complicated to explain, so here are some quick facts from Brookings to serve as an overview:
– The largest nuclear weapon type currently in the U.S. stockpile, the B83, has a yield of 1.2 megatons (1,200 kilotons)
– America has 7 types of nuclear weapon in its arsenal: W76 and W88 warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs); W78 and W87 warheads for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); W80 warheads for the air-launched cruise missile (ALCM); and B61 (multiple variants) and B83 gravity bombs. Under the “3+2” plan, it is proposed over time to reduce the warhead types to three warheads for ballistic missiles, one gravity bomb (B61) and one warhead for ACLMs.
– Known as the “Davy Crockett,” the W54 weapon, a small nuclear warhead with a weight of 51 pounds fired by a recoilless gun mounted on a jeep, has the shortest range, 1.42 miles of any nuclear shell.
– America has officially lost and not recovered 11 nuclear weapons
– Under most scenarios, Donald Trump, the president of America, could have an ICBM carrying a nuclear payload in the air in 12 minutes.
– America has 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Typically, at any one time two of these submarines are in long-term overhaul, meaning that 12 are normally operationally available. Four other submarines of the Ohio-class have been converted to carry conventionally-armed cruise missiles in place of SLBMs.
– Each Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine has 24 launch tubes. Under the New START Treaty, four tubes on each submarine will be converted so that they are incapable of launching an SLBM and thus will not be counted against the treaty’s limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM and SLBM launchers plus deployed and non-deployed nuclear-capable bombers. The U.S. Navy plans that the Ohio-class submarine’s replacement will have 16 launch tubes.
– America conducted 28 “deterrence patrols” with its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines in 2012, ten by submarines based at King’s Bay, Georgia and 18 by submarines based at Bangor, Washington. The patrols last on average 70 days.
– America maintains 94 nuclear-capable heavy bombers maintained by the United States. This includes B-2 and B-52 bombers.
– America has an estimated 200 B61 nuclear gravity bombs deployed forward at bases in Europe for possible use by U.S. and NATO-allied air forces
– Five states are home to Minuteman III missile launch sites (Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming).
– America currently has 450 deployed Minuteman III ICBMs maintained by the United States. Under the New START Treaty, the U.S. Air Force plans to reduce the number of deployed Minuteman III ICBMs to 400-to-420.7
– The largest ballistic missile warhead currently in the U.S. stockpile, the W88 carried by the Trident II SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile), is 455 kilotons.
– America has 778 total deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and nuclear-capable bombers as of March 1, 2014 (the New START limit is 700).
– At the peak of the Cold War, America had 950 nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea.
– America conducted 1,030 nuclear tests before they were banned in 1992.
– America has 1,800-1,850 estimated warheads on deployed U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs. This also includes the number of nuclear bombs and air-launched cruise missiles at bases for deployed U.S. nuclear-capable bombers once the United States reaches the New START limit of 1,550 deployed warheads. The difference reflects the fact that, while New START counts all warheads on deployed ICBMs and SLBMs, it only attributes each deployed nuclear-capable bomber as one warhead, when the bombers can carry many more.
– America has around 2,700 nuclear weapons that have been retired from the stockpile and are awaiting dismantlement. There is a significant backlog in dismantling weapons.
– America had a total of 3,200 non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed forward in the Pacific region—Okinawa, South Korea, Guam, the Philippines and Taiwan—at their peak in 1967. The number began to decline after 1967, falling to 1,200 by 1977. The last forward-deployed nuclear weapons in the Pacific region were withdrawn in 1991.
– America has an estimated 4.650 total nuclear weapons—strategic and non-strategic, deployed and non-deployed—in the U.S. nuclear stockpile as of January 2014 (does not count an additional 2,700 retired weapons that await dismantlement).
– America had an estimated 7,304 non-strategic nuclear weapons deployed forward in Europe at their peak in 1971.
– America had an estimated 31,255 nuclear weapons in its nuclear stockpile at its peak in 1967.
From other sources:
– America has an extensive missile defense system comprised of (according to open source, unclassified intelligence) ground-based interceptor missiles, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, Airborne systems, and Shorter-range anti-ballistic missiles. These systems have questionable reliability, but have seen successful tests.
If North Korea were to launch an ICBM with multiple targets, we need only look to America’s bombing own of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only nuclear weapons ever used, to understand the impact this might have on our population.
The 12-18 kiloton blast had a radius of about 1 mile, with resulting fires across 4.4 square miles, according to a report from the U.S Nuclear Defense Agency. In 1942, Hiroshima was around 350 square miles and had a population of around 420,000, making the population density roughly 1,200 humans per square mile. The deaths from the blast were somewhere between 70,000 and 130,000 human lives. Similarly, Nagasaki had a population of 240,000, with a density of roughly 154 humans/mi². However, between 40,000-80,000 humans were killed by America by the 18-23 kiloton Nagasaki bomb. This means that when making any calculation we can’t simply take the population density into consideration, but have to also consider the swollen population of a city during business hours. For example Manhattan, where I live, has an area of 22.82 square miles and a population of over 1.6 million, making the population density roughly 71,000 humans/mi². However, during an average workday the population swells to nearly 4 million, increasing the population density to around 175,000 humans/mi². (Note: these are all very rough estimates and I am not an expert in nuclear weaponry. Additional calculations for wind speed, weather, and radiation seepage would be needed to fully realize the number of casualties.)
With this in mind, and acknowledging New York City has the highest population density in the United States, North Korea’s maximum casualty expectation for a single nuclear detonation of 30 kilotons (I’m assuming a radius of 2 miles with 16mi² of fires), if centered in the densest part of our densest city during peak hours would be around 2-3 million, or around .9% of the total U.S population.
It is not merely highly unlikely that North Korea will ever strike the United States, it is highly improbable their capabilities, both in distance and precision, will allow them to reach our most densely populated city, leaving them with sub-optimal options if numbers of casualties is their goal. Their most likely targets, due to the increased limitations the distance to the east coast entails, would be Anchorage, Seattle, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. Each of these cities has a significantly reduced population density compared to their east coast counterparts. This is not to say that a North Korean attack wouldn’t be intensely traumatic for the American people, but rather that North Korea in no way poses an existential threat requiring an unprecedented and illegal preventive strike.
The same cannot be said for the level of threat America poses to North Korea, or the entire world for that matter. The American arsenal, controlled by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, is capable of bringing about what is called a “nuclear winter”, a doomsday scenario that would see most life on Earth wiped out. While it is understandable and admirable the United States believes the world is better off if fewer nations have nuclear weapons, it is of little consolation when it retains 4,650 nuclear devices with up to 1.2 megaton payloads, 40 times stronger than North Korea’s strongest weapon.
With these facts in mind, it seems absurd for the president of the United States, Donald Trump, to claim the right and necessity of a preventive strike. A hegemonic militaristic nation with thousands more nuclear weapons many times more powerful than North Korea’s is claiming it feels threatened because theoretically North Korea could use its weapons against one of its cities. This is not reasonable foreign policy for a nation that spends more on its military than its nearest seven competitors combined. Combined.
It becomes even less reasonable when we consider the 150,000 American expats and roughly 28,500 US service members currently stationed in North Korea. If the claim is that the loss of American life is unacceptable (which implies the loss of non-American lives is more acceptable, a morality I personally find reprehensible), having people die “over there”, as Lindsay Graham has stated Donald Trump told him, does not mean American lives will be spared. In fact the loss of so many American lives would most likely lead to further military engagement with North Korea, resulting in an even greater loss of American lives (though admittedly these lives belong to members of the United States military, which I remain unconvinced the American government considers worth preserving).
Having participated in the multiple war games the United States conducts each year in South Korea in which it practices invading North Korea and overthrowing its regime, I can safely say I understand why North Korea might feel threatened and why they are currently attempting to demonstrate to the world that any attack would result in devastating consequences for their neighbors.
My unit when I was stationed at Camp Casey, South Korea for two years (2011-2013) was 210 Fires Brigade. Our stated mission was (and remains) “On order, 210th Field Artillery Brigade provides fires in support of Air Combat Command and Ground Combat Command’s counter fire fight. On order, transitions to offensive operation.” The common joke among my fellow Soldiers of the brigade was that we were simply a speed bump for North Korea’s million man army. However, from this vantage point, I was able to understand the full scope of the artillery batteries we were supposed to counter-fire if combat were to kick off. In fact, a year or so before I arrived in Korea the brigade was very nearly called on to provide this type of retaliatory fire during the yeonpyeong island incident of 2010. Fortunately, the situation did not escalate and the relatively stable peace was maintained. Regardless, the array of artillery batteries lined up in North Korea targeting Seoul are frankly terrifying, as they are well protected and prepared to launch at a moment’s notice, devastating a city of 24 million people.
Though usually not as serious as the yeonpyeongdo or the ROKS Cheonan incidents, tensions between North and South Korea have remained high throughout the decades-long armistice, often exacerbated by the presence of the US military. At any time since first acquiring nuclear weapons (2005-2006ish), North Korea could have used these weapons to attack their southern neighbor, with whom they are still technically at war. They have not done so, even at times of extremely high tension. It’s not in the interest of the North Korean government nor would any resulting scenario end in their favor. Therefore it is my conclusion that these nuclear weapons are simply bargaining chips the hermit kingdom uses to maintain their tenuous place in the global order.
With this established, my question is: why are is the United States rocking the boat?
While the armistice is not ideal and the North Korean government has repeatedly brutalized its own people (though South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and every other country involved have brutalized their own people as well at various points throughout history, so it’s hard to take any sort of sanctimonious hand wringing about that point seriously), right now we have peace and stability. There is a path out of this scenario that maintains that peace and stability, but in the interest of whatever their goal is the government of the United States is pushing the boundaries of that peace. If something happens, it is not because of the actions of North Korea, or South Korea, or Russia, or China, which are all relatively predictable constants. Rather it would be because of the actions of the United States, which makes up the unpredictable variable in this equation thanks to its tumultuous and money-soaked democracy, which was on full display with the election of Donald Trump.
It is important to note that an individual entity, whether human or government, only has control over its own actions. The actions of others are outside our control, but can be influenced by deliberate behavior meant to assure, induce, coerce, or fool. The question I hope the United States is constantly asking itself is, “Are the actions of our nation contributing to or detracting from global peace and stability.” At the moment I’m afraid the Unites States is in the latter category, which, as Newton informs us, will have consequences proportional to the size of our dominating influence.
(As this is not an official paper I did not do a very good job of citing my sources. If anyone is interested in where I got this information I am extremely happy to take the time to share that with you. If no one cares I appreciate it because I’m lazy and like to get away with the least amount of work necessary to get my point across so I can go back to watching tv, playing video games, talking to friends, listening to music, or whatever else helps distract me from the soul-crushing possibilities this potential conflict might bring about.)