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Editorial: Major Risk Of Nuclear Conflict

IT is said that an error uncorrected can soon become an irreversible mistake. The recent warning of an imminent nuclear attack in Hawaii that remained in force for thirty-eight minutes before being declared a false alarm caused fear and panic amongst its 1.4 million population. Reportedly, it happened as a result of the wrong button being pressed at the time of a change of shift at the island state’s so-called “nerve centre” operation.

A similar incident happened in Japan recently when the national broadcaster falsely announced that North Korea had launched a ballistic missile at the country, which was already on high alert of such an attack, and warned people to take shelter.

This was soon corrected, but both incidents illustrated the current potential danger of errors and misunderstandings occurring at an international level in a world connected by instant communications which could lead to the ultimate nightmare of the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Despite both being false alarms, the fact that such warnings could be issued at all is a frightening indication that the world in modern times could lurch suddenly and without warning into nuclear warfare. It is hard to believe that the threat of nuclear conflict now looms large and must be considered a real possibility.

By contrast, although during the Cold War both the USA and USSR possessed nuclear weapons, there was a general belief that parity between them provided an effective deterrent since their use would result in mutual destruction if not annihilation. Moreover, the respective nuclear arsenals were held by the two main players on the world stage and were thus perceived to be at least within a controlled environment. So, people felt almost comfortable that neither side would use them. Nuclear war was, in effect, unthinkable, though the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 presented a serious threat until the USSR finally stepped back from the brink when confronted by President Kennedy’s ultimatum.

Nowadays, however, the increase of nuclear proliferation and the danger of powerful weapons being in the hands of rogue states or even terrorist organisations has resulted in greater uncertainty and the fear that the world is close to nuclear conflict – specifically, the realistic possibility of a North Korean missile being launched against South Korea, Japan, US bases in Okinawa or even the US mainland itself.

In advance of this year’s World Economic Forum due to take place in Davos next week, its Global Risks Report, which has just been released, finds that the possibility of political and economic confrontation between the major powers, including outright military conflicts using WMD, has risen to become a serious risk and that the potential impact of WMD is one of the biggest threats to mankind in 2018. This is against the backdrop of escalating tension between the US and North Korea as well as the threat from Iran despite the 2015 nuclear deal. The survey finds that other challenges and threats are extreme weather, natural disasters, cyberattacks, food crises, large-scale involuntary migration and the spread of infectious diseases, and that overall these various risks will intensify during the course of the year.

After US diplomacy over many years failed to curb North Korea’s programme to develop nuclear weapons, President Trump has engaged in bluster and insults, backed up by harsh international sanctions, to try to secure denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s latest conciliatory moves towards its neighbour, including the two Koreas marching together at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics and a joint ice hockey team, could be a helpful sign. But, as Kim Jong-un continues his missile-testing, observers warn that the world should not be blinded by his charm offensive and that, despite what appears to be a tentative truce, the pressure on North Korea should be maintained by the international community strictly enforcing sanctions. However, it must be right to build on the thaw in relations by renewed use of diplomacy.

Meanwhile, the problem of Iran’s nuclear programme remains while Mr Trump continues to threaten to withdraw from the 2015 multilateral agreement – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -- against the wishes of all the other signatories (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). Even if Iran is not in full compliance, the agreement imposes certain major constraints. This is surely better than re-imposing sanctions and leaving it to pursue its nuclear programme rather than keeping it on a tight rein. That would be seen as having serious repercussions for the security of the West given that Iran, which is already a state sponsor of terrorism, could share its nuclear technology and know-how with terrorist groups.

Mr Trump is due to deliver a speech on the final day of the annual Davos forum in the presence of many world leaders. All will wish to listen intently to what he has to say about the threat of conflict on the Korean peninsula that has now widened to become a global issue and about new military confrontation in the Middle East.

These and so many other world problems need wise, calm and responsible statesmanship. Effective action is urgently required to reduce international tensions – not least because, with fingers hovering over buttons which might be pressed even unintentionally, the world is increasingly vulnerable to an unpredictable and calamitous error which could turn in to an irrevocable mistake with disastrous consequences.

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