Nine years after then-U.S President Barack Obama committed America to the pursuit of “a world without nuclear weapons,” nine months after the U.N. adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and five months after the Nobel Peace Prize Committee conferred one of the world’s highest honors on the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, nuclear war looms larger than it has in more than half a century.
The Doomsday Clock stands at two minutes to nuclear midnight, with the journal Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists having moved it 30 seconds forward in January. The last time the clock showed midnight this close was in 1953, shortly after the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear bombs. North Korea was then an infant state, war-torn and impoverished. It still is impoverished, if living standards are the measure. But it is no longer war-torn, and it is nuclear.
Last August, U.S. President Donald Trump said: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” If fire is met with fire, and fury with fury, we’ll know what sort of threshold we now stand on.
In the meantime, it’s guesswork. What are the chances of war? Let’s say, figures former Foreign Ministry analyst Masaru Sato in the monthly Bungei Shunju, 0.01 percent. That sounds reassuring. Or perhaps not. Similar odds, he says, are against a major fire breaking out in your neighborhood. It probably won’t happen. But then it might. Fires do occur.
Journalist Ryuichi Teshima, Sato’s interlocutor in a dialogue the magazine runs verbatim, suggests two potential tripwires. One: a desperate or over-confident North Korea lashes out, striking Guam or Hawaii or U.S. bases in Japan, in which case a U.S. counterattack is a “100 percent” certainty. The second possibility is an American pre-emptive strike. Not likely, not impossible.
Much hinges on the mercurial characters of the two leading actors in the drama, Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Suppose recklessness prevails — what follows? Seoul, Sato speculates, falls in three days, the U.S. subdues North Korea in three months, the dead on both sides totaling perhaps 3 million. That’s if fighting is non-nuclear. If nuclear, 10 million dead and regional devastation reminiscent of Japan’s circa 1945. Recovery would take 10 years. Only that? Tohoku, the seventh anniversary of whose seismic-nuclear nightmare was commemorated on March 11, has yet to fully recover — an enduring lesson against blithe optimism.
An unexpected burst of North Korean charm altered the mood, if not the picture. The “Olympic peace,” honored as much in the breach as in the observance but resonant all the same, is very ancient, dating back to the games’ semi-mythical origin in 776 B.C. Peace was a theme of their 19th-century revival. Kim saw his opportunity and seized it.
A military parade in Pyongyang the day before the games opened in Pyeongchang proudly displayed, along with much else, the Hwasong-15 ICBM, the missile North Korea rattled global nerves by tested in November amid claims it could reach the U.S. mainland, rattling global nerves. But Kim sent athletes and his younger sister to Pyeongchang, the latter bearing his message of Olympic peace. He would be happy, he said, to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He would be happy to meet Trump. He would consider denuclearizing. Belligerence had won him and his country respect, however grudging. Now he would show himself to be a man of peace, a statesman among statesmen, a negotiator.
Sato’s skepticism is sharp. Kim, he says, “though an outrageous dictator, is practical and strategic in his thinking. South Korean diplomacy, by contrast, is simply childish.” Trump’s sudden about-face — “fire and fury” on the back burner for now, a Trump-Kim summit in the offing for May — came about after Bungei Shunju went to press, so we can only guess what Sato would think of it.
The world has large problems and small ones. Sometimes they mirror one another, the latter the former in microcosm. Something unsettling is fermenting in Japanese elementary schools. The term “gakkyū hokai” seeped into the English language some 20 years ago. A direct translation would be “classroom breakdown” — kids running amok, teachers helpless to control them. In 1999, Britain’s Economist magazine had a little grin at Japan’s expense: “As usual, Japan seems to be fretting about the sorts of social problems from which other countries would dearly love to suffer. … Some children apparently decline to sit down when asked; others of an even more obstreperous bent chat with each other, swear at their teachers or eat sweets in class.” Much ado about nothing — as it surely is compared to, say, the school massacres plaguing the U.S.
Josei Seven magazine doesn’t compare it to them, however, and finds cause for concern in the fact that what was once largely a junior and senior high school problem attributable in part to the stresses and strains of puberty has shifted to the 7- and 8-year-olds of the early grades of elementary school. Education ministry statistics record 238 episodes of elementary school classroom “violent behavior” in 2006 — versus 2,584 episodes in 2016.
What’s got into the kids? A deep and unfulfilled desire to be “noticed,” says Shiraume University professor Shuji Masuda. Obedience doesn’t draw attention. Disruption does. The more flagrant the disruption — shouting down the teacher, throwing things, knocking over desks — the more the attention, and even if it’s angry attention, so what, if attention is more important than praise?
Why children should be more starved for attention lately than formerly is an open question. Times change, some indefinable thing in the atmosphere morphs into some other indefinable thing, and we change, sometimes knowing, sometimes not, precisely what we’re responding to.
If the Doomsday Clock is reliable, it’s two minutes to midnight. In 2009, when Obama in his Prague address declared, “Today I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” it was five minutes to midnight.
He mentioned North Korea: “Just this morning … North Korea broke the rules once again by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles. This provocation underscores the need for action.”
So it did, and so it does. But what action?
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”