The world in general and Americans in particular have grown perilously comfortable with the massive dangers of nuclear weapons in the 74 years since the first and only pair were used in combat.
No one can live on edge every minute, of course. But those things could be unleashed at any time — and came close again last week in South Asia. At the same time, the delicate, endless business of seeking to control them brought together the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea.
The world has witnessed megatons of meetings and warnings and treaties and speeches and threats and alerts since August of 1945 when the United States became history’s only user of such mass destruction.
Atom bombs nicknamed Little Boy and Fat Boy flattened Hiroshima and much of Nagasaki, ultimately killing a quarter-million to convince the Empire of Japan to end World War II. Unbeknownst to the world then, those were the only two atom bombs the U.S. had.
That has, of course, changed drastically in the years since as the destructive power and census of such warheads multiplied many times over, and as the number of countries possessing or developing them has mushroomed.
You’ve heard a lot more talk about nuclear weapons recently. Iran’s weapons and missile development prompted President Donald Trump to pull out of a nuclear accord there. North Korea has tested weapons underground and has launched long-range missiles over Japan.
Last week’s open fighting between India and Pakistan was largely treated as just another episode in the decades-long dispute over Kashmir.
Does this perhaps sound familiar? Terrorists with safe haven in Pakistan sent a suicide bomber into India, killing 40 soldiers. India retaliated by bombing a terrorist camp. Pakistan shot down an Indian plane.
It can seem terribly local. Except India has an estimated 140 nuclear weapons. Pakistan has 130. China, next door, has many more.
Trouble is, no countries with nuclear weapons are likely to give them up. Libya’s dictator Moammar Gadhaffi voluntarily surrendered his program in 2003 in exchange for an international promise to leave him alone.
Eight years later, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama joined European forces in ousting Gadhaffi, who was killed by a mob.
That was 2011. Oh, look: That’s the same year Kim Jung-un succeeded his father as North Korea’s “Supreme Leader born of Heaven.”
Given the Libyan example and North Korea’s decades of money, prestige and national deprivation invested in constructing its own nuclear warheads and missile delivery systems, Trump’s ultimate goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula seems beyond far-fetched.
The second Kim-Trump summit last week failed to produce any new agreement that we know of. Taking his own deal-making advice that any good negotiator must be willing to walk away at any time, Trump did just that in Vietnam. Kim sought a lifting of at least some of the tough economic sanctions in exchange for a promise of modest nuclear cuts.
That’s a classic North Korean strategy — talk and promise and then renege. And it’s worked on recent American presidents.
Trump’s domestic critics, who scheduled a damaging congressional hearing while he was abroad, immediately pounced on the summit’s “failure.”
It’s quite the convenient amnesia in American politics these days to forget history. In 1986, Ronald Reagan’s critics pounced when he walked away from a summit in Reykjavik with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Turns out, however, the lack of U.S. concessions there put so much financial and political pressure on the creaky Soviet system that it collapsed soon after.
You may have noticed Trump’s repeated renditions of the tempting rosy economic future he sees as possible for Kim’s country. “Vietnam is thriving like few places on Earth,” Trump said. “North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize. The potential is awesome.”
Kim is the third generation of his family to secretively and ruthlessly rule the North. The first was Kim Il-sung, the current Kim’s grandfather who seized power in the vacuum of Japan’s World War II defeat.
In 1950, he started the Korean War, which technically has never ended. When Kim No. 1 wanted a new wife, Mrs. Kim No. 1 was found knifed to death in the garden.
No one knew that Kim No. 2, Kim Jong-il, was married until one day he mentioned his wife’s unexplained death. That Kim himself died in 2011, reportedly from a heart attack just months after naming Kim No. 3 his heir.
In 2013, a South Korean newspaper reported that the pop singer girlfriend of Kim No. 3 had been shot with others for anti-state activities.
Two years ago in a Malaysian airport, a pair of female North Korean agents rubbed a lethal nerve agent on the face of Kim Jong-nam, basically Kim 2.5, who could have replaced his half-brother in any coup.
No one thinks Kim’s control in Pyongyang will collapse as long as he has the military’s support. To encourage obedience, Kim has executed some officers by artillery cannon.
Washington’s annual Gridiron Dinner often involves presidents sharing self-deprecating humor. Last year’s came as talks began for history’s first U.S.-North Korean summit, and Trump showed an unseen side. “As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned,” Trump said, “that’s his problem, not mine.”
After this summit, the U.S. leader noted, accurately, as signs of progress that Kim has suspended nuclear and missile tests while the U.S. postponed joint military exercises with South Korea.
Trump has also called Kim “a character” and “pretty mercurial” adding, “He’s a different kind of guy.” Come to think of it, these nuclear talks involve two of them.