News & Politics

NK Nukes: How Long ‘Til Midnight?


The U.S. calls this intercontinental ballistic missile the “Peacekeeper.” Those jokers! (FAS)

Since 1947, one of the nation’s leading weapons watchdogs—The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist—has offered a handy gauge to the cataclysmic threats of the nuclear age: the Doomsday Clock. The simple clock, with its hand positioned some minutes from the “midnight” of nuclear war, traced developments from the first Soviet A-bomb test, through the Cuban missile crisis, disarmament talks, and Dubya’s pulling out from the ABM treaty. In 1953 the clock moved as close as two minutes to midnight after dueling U.S.-Soviet H-bomb tests; after the end of the Cold War in 1991, it fell back to 17 minutes, then crept up to seven. Does Kim Jong-Il’s big boom mean the clock will edge closer to the fateful hour?

Not right away, and maybe not ever, says Bulletin executive director Kennette Bennedict. The Bulletin evaluates the clock twice a year at its board meetings; the next one’s due in a month or so, by which time more data will be in on what North Korea actually did and what the rest of the world will do in response. “Clearly, it’s not a good development,” says Bennedict. “The implications of the North Korean test are grave because it means that many other countries will think nuclear weapons are a good thing to have.”

But Pyongyang’s underground test has to be seen in context—namely the context of some 27,000 nuclear weapons that are already known to exist, mostly in the stockpiles of the U.S. and Russia, but also in the quivers of Britain, China, France, India, Israel (shhhhh!), and Pakistan.

“We [the U.S.] still haven’t stood down from the end of the Cold War,” says Bennedict. “In the U.S., we can still launch 50 ICBMs with essentially one press of the button.”

To that scary thought, add the worries over launch systems getting hacked, the fact that the U.S. still has a launch-on-warning doctrine that would retaliate to any Russian missile firing at us with a launch of our own, and the fact that there’s evidence that people are still dying from cancers caused by the U.S. attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the North Korean explosion seems like only the newest, smallest and most unpredictable of threats. (Or maybe not the smallest: As recently as last year, the Bush administration asked Congress for funding to research “small” nuclear weapons and nuke-powered “bunker busters.”)

The argument isn’t that North Korea isn’t a threat. A wack-job with even a small nuke is darned frightening. But to talk about Pyongyang’s six or seven nukes and not the rest of the world’s seems to ignore a pretty stark power differential. North Korea’s test appears to have generated less than a kiloton (equal to 1,000 metric tons of TNT) of force. The blast at Hiroshima 61 years ago packed an estimated 15 kilotons. Right now, says Bennedict, Russia and the U.S. each have 1,000 missiles ready to go, each topped with a warhead that’s eight to 40 times as powerful as Hiroshima. Altogether, the two superpowers could wipe out 8 million people. That ought to do it.


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