Of Nuclear Weapons and Posturing

Iran and North Korea are both building nuclear weapons. At least they are pretending to. In Iran's case, they have never tested one and don't appear in any hurry to do so. North Korea claims to have tested one, but the explosion felt by seismometers around the world could have been TNT.

In any case, it is far easier to detonate a nuclear weapon underground than it is to attach it to a missile, get the missile to fire without blowing up the nuclear device and then explode at the proper time over a target. In fact, no one has ever fired a nuclear weapon on a missile and had it go off successfully. The only nuclear weapons that have ever been exploded over a live target were dropped from bombers, not fired at the end of an unmanned missile. This was true of the tests on the Bikini Atoll as well as the better-known detonations over Japan at the end of World War II.

I doubt that anyone believes that the US and Russia couldn't hit a target with a nuclear missile, but it is still far more difficult than dropping it from a bomber, and much more difficult than detonating it underground in a static test.

Why bother with all these rambling? Because neither country has a usable nuclear weapon and what's more, neither is likely to any time soon. North Korea would probably like to, but the technical challenges are probably beyond them -- at least without extensive testing. And the world isn't going to let them test for long. If they attempt to fire Rocket #1 at South Korea (or any other target) they are as likely to blow the launch pad up as anything in the South.

I seriously doubt that Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon, but am far less sure of North Korea's intentions. I think Iran wants to be seen as building one. It shows they aren't "afraid" of the US, the UN or any other policeman. It sells well domestically and as long as they don't really build one, doesn't trigger anything more negative than words -- which again work to the regime's favor. Iran's leadership is intelligent enough to know that actually having a nuclear weapon isn't beneficial. Someone might take real action against them. That's not the intent. They are posturing to an audience that cheers long and loud about any Islamic state that thumbs their nose at the West. And we can't just ignore their attempts because of the real threat from North Korea and other potential unstable governments.

The reality is, for any government anchored in reality, that nuclear weapons are pretty much useless. More than 50 years after our tests on the Bikini Atoll, it is still too dangerous to let anyone live there. Modern atomic weapons are potentially much stronger than anything we dropped over Bikini. Seoul, South Korea, is only 30 miles from the North Korea border. It is insane to think you could drop a bomb on Seoul and do anything with the area around it -- including large parts of North Korea -- within the next 50+ years. All that would happen is that the world would remove the government of North Korea immediately. China, Russia, the US and most of the rest of the world would be united in a way they never have been before. Both China and Russia would suffer fall-out damage from such an event. At present China protects North Korea mainly out of fear that millions of North Koreans might suddenly cross the border seeking asylum in China. As soon as North Korea drops a bomb, that fear becomes reality and all support from China ends.

Israel has probably had nuclear weapons for more than a decade. Despite serious provocation on many fronts, she has never seen the advantage of using them. Israel, while never acknowledging that they have nuclear weapons, has said that they will never be the first to use them. This is, of course, rational. Were Israel to be first users, world opinion would leave them isolated and ultimately vulnerable.

India detonated its first device in 1974, Pakistan in 1998. Despite their considerable differences, terrorist raids across the border that have killed a fair number on both sides of the border, neither has considered any of its arsenal of 60 warheads.

Consider the problems from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) in 1986. While the radiation was not as severe as a modern nuclear bomb, 336,000 people had to be evacuated from what is now three separate countries: Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Nuclear rain fell as far afield as Ireland and fallout landed in eastern parts of North America. Very few governments have enemies far enough away that they could "safely" explode a bomb over the enemy without doing serious damage to themselves. And if they have enemies that far way, do they have missiles able to land that far way -- and do so with accuracy?

The reality is that nuclear weapons are too destructive to be used effectively. Those countries with nuclear weapons know this. Iran does as well. The government of North Korea, however, is less predictable and more dangerous. Fortunately, they are probably some distance from having real nuclear capabilities. Perhaps their government will change soon enough to prevent disaster.

July 1, 2009