Hawaii missile warning a reminder of the times

Yesterday’s ballistic missile scare in Hawaii had haunting echoes of a time I had hoped had long since past. It only lasted about 40 minutes before officials announced it was a false alarm, but in that time, Hawaii had a terrifying taste of what to expect in the minutes before an actual missile strike. And more than 70 years after the first nuclear weapons test, it is a reminder of what a volatile world we live in and what we are bringing our children and grandchildren up in.

But let us have a brief look back in the time line of war scares and see how we compare today with earlier times. In 1947, a bunch of concerned scientists called themselves Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and instituted the Doomsday Clock.

The doomsday clock is no ordinary clock. Whereas an ordinary clock continually goes forward, except when the hour hand is wound backwards for the end of daylight savings, this one goes forward and back. It is designed to show how close the world is to nuclear midnight, a time at which if – heaven forbid – we ever get there, the world, or part of it, will be understood to be in the midst of some sort of thermo/nuclear conflagration.

Timeline of the nuclear doomsday clock (Source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists).

The timeline shows how the clock has moved backwards and forwards over the years, depending on the level of international tension. It started life in 1947 at 23:53PM and kept slipping progressively forward as tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. increased. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis should probably be the lowest point (closest point to nuclear midnight)as during the 13 days of this crisis the United States was actively preparing to invade Cuba to destroy medium range missile sites installed by the U.S.S.R., aimed at the U.S., not away that short range sites also existed and could be aimed at the invasion beaches. At this stage, though not shown due to the short duration of the crisis it was probably 23:59. It improved after that, through the 1970’s, but started to deteriorate again to reach 23:58 in 1984 as a result of major wars between Iraq and Iran, and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan.

When the Cold War ended at the end of 1991 it was 23:47, with major cuts happening in military forces across the world. The threat of nuclear war had receded. The major proxy conflicts between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. with their client states had ended.

A bigger problem was who or what would fill the void left by the collapsed U.S.S.R. Initially that was unanswered. Later in 1994-95 Russia began trying to reassert its influence by destroying a separatist movement in Chechnya. In 2000, current Russian President Vladimir Putin was elected for the first time. Nationalism began to infiltrate Russian politics and defence spending began to increase once more.

In China another rival of the U.S., the Chinese economy and military spending were both growing in near double digit figures. Their large, Soviet inspired military of the Cold War began a massive transformation into the second most powerful military machine in the world today, slimmed down in size but with weapons, tactics and training fit for the 21st century. With a roaring economy came a roaring demand for raw material – coal, oil, gas, wood, steel. And most recently a Chinese agenda for a century of the Dragon.

Decades of interference by the C.I.A. in other countries affairs bit America on 11 September 2001. Whilst the world and the U.S. were rightfully horrified at the huge loss of life, such interference was always going to eventually boomerang on them. The then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may have been looking into a crystal ball when he said that the war might last 15-20 years and involve multiple invasions. Whatever the case, that has happened. But with a lack of obvious outcomes apparent, many have tired of the constant American emphasis on terrorism, especially when some of their actions have undermined the cause.

And all this time, the Kim dynasty of North Korea has quietly gone on its way observing events world wide and learning from American actions. With unfathomable brutality he and his daddy and grand daddy have made North Korea a vast prison camp with nuclear deterrence. With China (reluctantly and most likely more interested in their own one party state) acting as an insurance policy against American invasion, Kim Jong Un probably felt quite safe until Donald Trump assumed the Presidency.

We should not take anything for granted here in New Zealand. We should consider how we can mitigate the consequences of a war on the Korean peninsula – assuming in the first instance it is a conventional war with no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons involved. The political and economic fallout will be huge with huge loss in just about all sectors of the economy, and in particular the flow of international tourists to and from N.Z, but also various trading sectors.

Obviously I sincerely hope that the tensions de-escalate on the Korean Peninsula. However the level of fear and panic that was caused by the false ballistic missile warning in Hawaii, shows what would happen in the event of an actual attack, irrespective of whether it was in Japan where several warnings from actual missile over flights, or somewhere further afield.

These are fascinating times without doubt, but for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think I am the only one who really wants a de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula, whilst being acutely aware it could get much, much worse.

Winston Peters going to North Korea?

On Tuesday, New Zealand Time amid conflicting news about a mysterious deal that President Donald Trump announced, purportedly involving New Zealand, another interesting piece of news emerged. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters might be off on a trip to North Korea talk peace and encourage the rogue state to see reason.

Anything that delays or stops a military confrontation between North Korea and the United States must be a good thing.

But will it honestly work? I do not know the answer, but I think in honesty – it would be great if I am wrong – Mr Peters’ influence on the United States and North Korea is severely restricted. Pyongyang has backed itself into a corner from which it has nowhere to go – any move to appear accommodating on nuclear weapons compliance would be a climb down that Mr Jong Un cannot afford, as it would make him appear weak before the military whose compliance he needs.

And if it does work and miraculously Pyongyang agrees to return to the negotiations table, there is a frustrating and dangerous truth: everything that has been negotiated in the past has been thrown out the window by North Korea months or years later. If somehow a deal were to be struck, how do we know this would not end up on the growing pile outside the proverbial window?

Pyongyang has another problem. Even if it DID want to comply with demands to dismantle its nuclear weapons and the facilities used for them and were to start doing so, the sophistication that has now been achieved means it would have considerable difficulty undoing its weapons programme. It would need to wind up its enrichment facility, remove, disable or downgrade any nuclear reactors it has. The stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and any plutonium it has managed to manufacture would have to be handed over. The only way any of this could happen is if the orders to do so came from Kim Jong Un. And Mr Jong Un has very explicitly said North Korea will never surrender its nuclear weapons programme – at least not peacefully.

The stakes are high. Japan, with its long and dreadful memories of American bombing in the late stages of World War 2, has had numerous emergency drills to prepare its citizens in the event a conflict does start. It’s hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to weaken the constitutional constraints on Japanese military activity that were imposed by the occupying Allied Powers in 1947, a move that could potentially alarm its neighbours.

South Korea, which has to contend with the cantankerous North on a day to day basis, might be the least concerned. After all as the significant southern half of Korea, many of its citizens will know people in North Korea and share the – probably – very far off dream of a united peaceful Korean peninsula. It does so against the cold and no doubt nerve wracking reality that North Korea’s artillery is within firing distance of Seoul and even a short bombardment would probably cause tens of thousands of casualties.

And then there is China. Don’t ever forget the one country that can crush North Korea’s regime pretty much whenever and however it wants, or prop it up. This is the same China – albeit a much stronger one economically, politically, militarily in 2017 – that invaded North Korea in 1950 to prop the regime up against the United Nations advance, forcing the Korean War into a bloody and ultimately undecided stalemate.

Mr Trump might have nasty visions of North Korea attaining a degree of nuclear weapons prowess that threatens United States security. But North Korea will have noted the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It will have noted the anti-Iranian rhetoric emanating from the White House and as the third member of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s “rogue state” clique, the North Korean regime knows neoconservative America would love to get rid of it.

Would a young, possibly impressionable dictator with reactionist tendencies take very kindly to invtervention by a Minister of Foreign Affairs from a nation not one of his impoverished countrymen know anything about? Would he just laugh it off and use it to create propaganda against the United States and South Korea? Maybe.

Ardern meets Trump

The handshake was not a crusher. Unlike the potentially crushing power of the office of the man who shook Prime Minister Jacinda Arderns hand earlier today. As T.P.P. negotiations roll on we look at the major issues where New Zealand and America might dis/agree on.

It will be interesting to see how a decidedly left leaning New Zealand Government will get on with the most far right Government America has ever had. Mr Trump stands for a lot of the things that Ms Ardern and her Labour/New Zealand First/Green Party coalition balk at point blank, such as considering military spending as essential to the economy, cutting taxes, rolling back environmental laws and getting out of the Paris Climate Accord.

Mr Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement within a couple of days of taking office in January. Despite most of the Labour Party grass roots and both of her support parties being totally against the T.P.P.A., Ms Ardern seems content to sign the agreement with a few more concessions. Mr Trump is on this rare occasion on the right side of history, whereas New Zealand and the other countries negotiating are going to end up on the wrong side.

Mr Trump’s administration might not yet be fully aware of New Zealand’s attempts to get some of the refugees from Manus Island. How much it impacts on a supposed deal being negotiated between Australia and the United States remains to be seen. It would not be the first time New Zealand has interceded on Australian refugee. We took some of the refugees from the M.V. Tampa, a freighter that the John Howard Government claimed was carrying terrorists and baby drowners in 2001. Those refugees turned out to be quite an asset, with all contributing substantially to their adopted New Zealand communities, setting up small businesses and becoming doctors and lawyers. Hopefully Mr Trump sees the Australian xenophobia for what it is and offers to take some instead of being sucked into Peter Duttons hate machine.

New Zealand is a small bit player in the North Korean issue, but a potentially valuable one. Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has had prior experience negotiating with North Koreans and they invited him to visit Pyongyang, something that few other leaders have been offered. Aside from supporting the rule of international law at the United Nations and trying to get all sides to dial down the rhetoric, there is not realistically much else that New Zealand can help the United States with on this topic. No one will win if a war starts on this.

On the subject of climate change, New Zealand needs to stand firm, invest heavily in renewables and look at what sorts of environmentally responsible technologies it can develop, patent and export overseas. In short it needs to go in the opposite direction to the United States, which will find itself isolated by the international community in some respects – something New Zealand cannot afford to do.

Mr Trumps performance on the world stage, including his bellicose rhetoric against North Korea and Iran will also be watched closely. When he tweets the world takes notice just incase it is a foreign policy announcement. No doubt Ms Ardern and her press secretary keep close tabs on @realDonaldTrump and @POTUS.

America’s black and white view of the world ignores many, many shades of grey. New Zealanders seem to understand that they exist, but not why. Understanding those shades and where they fit into the spectrum – whether we agree with their purpose being another story altogether – is important, as is getting past the left-right political spectrum which is thoroughly redundant. Perhaps the most important thing though is not following this nonsense of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Whilst this remains the thinking in Washington, we need to keep America at arms length, something I think Ms Ardern understands, but Mr Trump does not.

Why the North Korea crisis should scare you

Picture this – it actually did happen: 27 October 1962. A U.S. destroyer enforcing the blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis detects a Soviet submarine and challenges it by deliberately dropping depth charges in the vicinity of the submarine to make it surface. Unbeknownst to the U.S. the submarine is armed with torpedoes that have nuclear warheads on them. If fired on, assuming the Commanding Officer and the next two most senior officers agreed, they would have fired one.

Had Vasiliy Arkhipov not disagreed, this would have instantly started World War 3.

The Cuban Missile Crisis fortunately ended the following day. But most people do not realise the U.S. was going to invade Cuba and that the operation for this would start on 29 October 1962. The Soviets had short range nuclear missileson Cuba pointed at the invasion beaches….

Fast forward to 1983: Cold War tensions are at dangerously high levels. The President of the United States has started a missile defence programme nicknamed “Star Wars”. The President of the U.S.S.R. is a paranoid death bed ridden man convinced America is going to start World War 3. Yuri Andropov had never been to the U.S. and knew nothing about America or Americans. But in these dangerously paranoid days he was convinced Ronald Reagan would give the order.

On 26 1983 Stanislaw Petrov was in his command bunker controlling the U.S.S.R.’s vast intercontinental ballastic missile arsenal when the most terrifying thing happened. The warning alarm for an incoming attack started to howl. He had 30 minutes to determine whether or not W.W.3. was starting and whether he needed to authorize a response. If he had to, there was a chain of command that had to be follow.

But there was something odd about this. Common logic dictated that if a nuclear attack is launched, you launch enough warheads so as to ensure no response is possible. But the satellite responsible for the warning had only picked up five. And ground based radar had detected none at all.

Common sense won the day. Petrov decided nothing was happening and ignored the alert.

On 1 November 1983 the N.A.T.O. alliance started Exercise Able Archer. This was a war on paper that would result in a mock nuclear attack. Unfortunately the U.S.S.R. picked up the transmission of signals regarding the exercise. Over the next ten days the mock war that existed only on paper gradually ratcheted up.

And so did the danger. Convinced war was coming the Soviet military machine began to mobilize. I.C.B.M. launchers began to be removed from their hiding places. Submarines and surface ships began to disperse. Bomber squadrons were put on rapid reaction alert.

And then, suddenly as it started, it ended. The communications went quiet. The officers involved went back to their regular day time roles. It was as if nothing had happened.

Go forward to 2017 and here we are again. Teetering of the abyss of nuclear war. This time on the Korean Peninsula. Dealing with a rogue maniac totally uncowed by America. Just like 1962 and 1983, only one shot fired in anger away from W.W.3.

Will we never learn?

The H-Bomb test that should not have been

The world should have seen this one coming. North Korea’s nuclear testing was always going to eventually result in a hydrogen bomb.

After seeing and reading what I did about the nature of an American thermonuclear weapon, it is what Kim has a achieved is a major advance in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. To be clear, a hydrogen bomb test has a many fold increase in the release of energy over a non-hydrogen bomb. We are no long talking about a device that can wipe out any New Zealand’s largest city. We are talking about a quantum leap in the increase in productive power.

When Kim Jong-il first achieved the ability to test a nuclear weapon at all in 2006, this was a major step backwards. It meant a nation that openly criticizes the world order and even its own Chinese allies now had a weapon capable of wiping out a small city. The devices being tested then were not big – at 12.5 kilotons they were a bit smaller than the device dropped on Hiroshima. Successive tests up to the one just over a week ago, only yielded relatively minor increases in destructive power – a 12.5 might have become an 20kt device. Destructive test, yes, but compared with the huge Tsar Bomba test by the U.S.S.R. in 1960, absolutely tiny.

Kim Jong Un has gone one better. In conducting Friday’s test, North ┬áKorea conducted a test about 20x bigger than the largest of the previous North Korean tests. At 250kt, we are taking about a nuclear warhead that could destroy Christchurch many fold over. Despite the worlds many attempts to curtail Kim, China continues to fund North Korea. The thing only propping up the regime is China.

Now that Mr Jong Un has such a powerful device, we need to play very carefully. around this issue. China could invade North Korea to prop up the country, except that this would likely start WW3 or some sort of larger conflict at risk of spiralling into WW3.

Kim Jong Un will keep testing nuclear weapons and making refinements. The fact that he has made the ones he said he would in 2017 without regard to increasing U.N. sanctions or the international community, tells me we have reached a dangerous cross roads.

Where we go from here puts millions of lives on the line as well as the global economy, human rights for millions and millions of people. Kim Jong Un does not care, but the West – for obvious reasons – do not have that luxury.