The prospect of nuclear war with North Korea has repeatedly been described as “unimaginable” — and in fact, most of us have literally failed to imagine it. As the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof points out, “We’re complacent — neither the public nor the financial markets appreciate how high the risk is of a war, and how devastating one could be.”
Admittedly, with biological, conventional and nuclear weapons expected to kill millions, the scenario is genuinely difficult to comprehend. We struggle to translate such high numbers into pictures of individual men, women and children suffering.
Nevertheless, we can no longer afford to be in denial. Top military and political experts warn that the risk of war is at an all-time high, the threat is imminent and the impact would be catastrophic. Even before North Korea’s latest missile test, former US Army General Barry McCraffrey, Council of Foreign Relations President Richard Haass and the International Institute for Strategic Studies Executive Director Mark Fitzpatrick all estimated that the risk of war was 50 percent. General McCaffrey expects that war will breakout by summer 2018.
There is a significant risk that a war would escalate beyond a regional conflict. China has warned that it would intervene on behalf of North Korea in the case of a US preemptive strike, and international security experts Nora Bensahel and David Barno argue that China may launch attacks on “US bases in the region or possibly even the US homeland, especially since radiation would inevitably blanket some of its territory.” China has been carrying out military drills near the Korean peninsula since July, and tested an ICBM capable of hitting the continental United States on November 6. Russia also recently publicly warned that it is preparing for war as well.
Even if the war was confined to the Korean peninsula, however, it has the “potential to cause mass starvation worldwide,” as a result of nuclear winter, according to nuclear experts Alan Robock and Owen Toon.
In other words, World War III is no longer just the stuff of sci-fi movies — it may be right around the corner.
With such high stakes, it is critical that we voluntarily imagine the “unimaginable,” as uncomfortable as it may be. Those who do imagine war are much more likely to take action to prevent it. Journalist and author Jonathan Schell advocated for this position in his 1982 book The Fate of the Earth, writing that “Only by descending into this hell in imagination now can we hope to escape descending into it in reality … the knowledge we thus gain cannot in itself protect us from nuclear annihilation, but without it we cannot begin to take measures that can actually protect us.”
It is no coincidence that members of Congress who are war veterans have been some of the most outspoken and active in raising the alarm over the crisis in North Korea.
Although President Reagan never personally experienced war, a movie depicting a nuclear attack on the United States was enough to activate his imagination and change his entire orientation to nuclear war. After seeing the “The Day After,” he wrote in his diary that the film “left me greatly depressed … We have to do all we can to have a deterrent and see there is never a nuclear war.” A few months later, he announced that “reducing the risk of war, and especially nuclear war, is priority number one.” His shift in perspective is often credited with being one of the most important factors in de-escalating the Cold War.
As our brains are hard-wired to protect us from thinking about large-scale suffering, we too may need to take proactive efforts to imagine a potential war. For example, we can look at pictures of Hiroshima and read the stories of atomic bomb survivors, transposing such scenarios to our own cities. We can use nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein’s Nukemap to understand what would happen if a bomb was dropped on our own cities. We can ensure that we stay updated on the crisis and that we obtain information from reliable sources with expertise.
However, while imagining the prospect of war may be necessary, it is not sufficient: Americans must mobilize quickly and effectively to address the threat. If they are able to do so, there is good reason to believe they can prevent war.
First, there are viable options to resolve the Korean crisis — the Trump administration just hasn’t tried any of them yet. In 1994, the Clinton administration successfully negotiated a framework agreement that centered on the idea of a freeze-for-freeze: North Korea suspended its nuclear program in exchange for the US suspending some of its military exercises. The agreement held up until 2003 when the Bush administration — not North Korea — ended the agreement.
A new freeze-for-freeze (which North Korea has repeatedly indicated it would be open to), in combination with legislation preventing Trump from launching a pre-emptive strike, would be the best possible option to solve the current crisis. Essentially, if North Korea doesn’t feel threatened, it will probably stop threatening others.
Second, there is already an existing grassroots structure with the capabilities to organize an effective large-scale movement. Since Trump became president, “an astounding number of new grassroots groups, at least six times the number the Tea Party could boast at its height,” have formed according to grassroots leader L.A. Kauffman. Activists have already done the hard part — they have formed movements, mobilized large segments of the American population, and proven their efficacy, successfully organizing to prevent the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, for example.
Third, unlike with Obamacare, there is already bipartisan support for efforts to prevent war with North Korea. There are already over 60 co-sponsors, including two Republicans, to the “No Unconstitutional Strike against North Korea Act” in the House. Although there are only three Democrats co-sponsoring the Senate bill, several Republican senators — including Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Dan Sullivan, and John Thune — have all publicly expressed concern about Trump’s approach to North Korea.
However, there hasn’t been any movement on the bill since it was introduced in October, nor on various other bills that would restrict Trump’s power to start a pre-emptive war. Public pressure is needed to ensure that Congress prioritizes such legislation.
Although no bills have been introduced as of yet to support a freeze-for-freeze, 61 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in August highlighting the success of the aforementioned 1994 Agreed Framework, stating that there is an “urgent need to replicate these successes.” While the Trump administration is responsible for making international treaties, Congress could still force a freeze-for-freeze by passing legislation that prevents funds from being used for the most provocative military drills.
Fourth, there is a historical precedent for a large-scale nuclear freeze movement. During the Cold War, as activist and writer Duncan Meisel explained, over a third of Americans participated in “a series of city and state referendum campaigns calling for a Nuclear Freeze.” What’s more, “Reagan’s militaristic temperament” — according to Andrew Lanham of the Boston Review — actually aided the movement’s efforts to garner support across the political spectrum.
However, all of these advantages are meaningless if activists fail to focus sufficient attention on the North Korea crisis. With so many important issues at stake, activism can feel like triage these days: Efforts tend to be focused on whatever legislative calamity is most imminent. The problem with that approach is that activists’ focus becomes determined by Congress’ agenda rather than grassroots priorities.
If activists take a breath from firefighting long enough to imagine a potential war with North Korea, they may realize that they need to proactively organize to insist that Congress urgently focuses its attention on the North Korea crisis, and implements an effective legislative strategy to prevent war.
As the Bulletin of Scientists President Rachel Bronson says, “we have reversed the hands of the Doomsday Clock before. We can do it again.”