North Korea’s Nuclear Volcano

In the atomic age, who needs the four horsemen of the apocalypse – pestilence, war, famine, and death – when one will do? In mid-October, North Korean ‘Supreme Leader’ Kim Jong-un rode a white horse up a snow-peaked mountain, gazing from the summit with a “mien” so “dignified” – in the awed tones of an official statement – that “all the officials who accompanied him to the top…felt overwhelming emotion and joy, convinced there will” soon be “a great operation to strike the world with wonder again…”

The site of this absurd drama was Mount Paektu, doubly-sacred to the atheist Workers’ State as birthplace of the Supreme Leader’s father, Kim Jong Il (actually born in the Soviet Union), and guerrilla HQ of his demigod grandfather Kim Il Sung – reputedly assisted in his fight against Japanese occupation by an invulnerable white horse. The nation’s last ‘great operation,’ however – the September 2017 detonation of a 200-kiloton (12+ Hiroshimas) thermonuclear weapon – took place at another peak, Mount Mantap, its interior hollowed, reputedly by Gulag slave-laborers, to make room for the ‘birth’ and growth of the North Korean Bomb.

Kim Jong Un on a horse on Mount Paektu in a photo released from the Korean Central News Agency on October 16, 2019. Korean Central News Agency

Kim Jong Un on a horse on Mount Paektu in a photo released from the Korean Central News Agency on October 16, 2019. Korean Central News Agency

The explosion – the sixth, and by far the mightiest, since 2006 – sent more than metaphoric shock waves through the region; registering 6.3 on the Richter Scale, it wreaked physical havoc (cave-ins and landslides) in and around the site, leading scientific observers to fear uncontainable radiation from future blasts. What it left the world wondering was whether North Korea had now developed a hydrogen bomb sufficiently small and light to be accurately delivered by Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) to swathes of the globe including the continental United States?

Although confidence was now as shaken as Mt. Mantap, the general expert view was that a few more tests — of warheads and/or missiles — were probably necessary. Fevered speculation abounded as to the merits and prospects of a ‘preventive’ US attack, almost certainly involving nuclear forces, a doomsday scenario that would surely guarantee the firing not just of ‘Seoul-destroying’ conventional artillery but short- and medium-range chemical and nuclear weapons aimed as much at Japan as South Korea.


Just such an American first-strike, after all – despite the obvious risks it ran of drawing China, and even Russia, into a wider-than-regional conflict – had been planned and practiced for years, in war games oft-cited by North Korea as justification for its own nuclear program. This vicious circle had been turning for years — with increasing speed since the illegal 2003 US invasion of Iraq. But as President Donald Trump took office, it was clearer than ever that the Pentagon’s cherished ‘military option’ could not remain on the fabled ‘table’ much longer: that little North Korea would soon be able to threaten ‘Goliath’ with a taste of his own nuclear ‘medicine.’

Less than a month before the H-bomb earthquake, Trump famously promised to visit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” As the most ‘fire and fury’ the world has ever seen was the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – two cities incinerated by just two bombs – Trump must logically have been threatening something worse. Two weeks after the test, Trump told the UN General Assembly that the US may soon “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” adding:

The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.  That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.

US and South Korean soldiers participate in a river crossing exercise on May 30, 2013 in South Korea

US and South Korean soldiers participate in a river crossing exercise on May 30, 2013 in South Korea (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun)

This sinister variant on the President’s incessant refrain – ‘We’ll see what happens’ – presumably implied that what the UN was ‘for’ was making the world sufficiently secure to provide America with better options for getting its way than ‘going nuclear.’ But though the Security Council and General Assembly have long sought, through innumerable resolutions and appeals, to prevent catastrophe on the Peninsula, the 2017 Nuclear War Scare was primarily defused by the determination of both Koreas to snatch détente from the jaws of disaster.


It still feels like a miracle: the New Year overture of Kim Jong-un to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, pledging to embrace, not disrupt, the Winter Olympics – suddenly the ‘Peace Olympics’ – in Pyeongchang; the alacrity with which President Moon – a devout believer in the ‘sunshine’ policy of ‘strength through peace’ – seized the unexpected olive branch; and, be it said, the willingness of President Trump to reward Pyongyang’s suspension of missile and nuclear tests, and mothballing of Mantap, with a suspension of military exercises. A daring de-escalation – lamented as ‘appeasement’ by bipartisan critics – leading to the first-ever meeting of the leaders of two states still technically at war.

And though the results of the June 2018 Singapore Summit were widely derided, was it really a ‘nothing-burger’ to pledge to achieve “new relations in accordance with the desires of the peoples of the two countries,” “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” and “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula?”

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. Hanoi, 27 February 2019. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. Hanoi, 27 February 2019. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

For some in the President’s inner circle — notably National Security Adviser John ‘Bomb ’Em’ Bolton — the Singapore Declaration was not so much thin gruel as hemlock.

For Bolton, President George W. Bush’s anti-UN UN Ambassador – known mockingly in Pyongyang as ‘the father of the North Korean bomb’ for his proliferation-provoking advocacy of violent regime change – the only denuclearization show in town was ‘the Libya model,’ shorthand for the fateful decision of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein, to fully abandon his nuclear program in return for a lifting of sanctions, rehabilitation of the state’s global reputation, and guarantees of inward investment.

This apparent triumph of American coercive diplomacy, however, was a case of stagecraft rather than state-craft. In the words of Robert Einhorn, a senior State Department non-proliferation official under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama:

Libya hardly had a nuclear weapons program. It had crates with centrifuge parts it didn’t know what to do with. US transport planes could land and carry the entire ‘program’ away. North Korea has nuclear weapons. We don’t know how many. It has nuclear production facilities. We don’t know where they all are. Verifying what they have and dismantling all of it would take years.

It is simplistic to say Gaddafi would later fall from power (and to his death) because he’d foolishly discarded his atomic ‘ace card.’ But the destruction of his regime – and the tragic shattering of Libya – by NATO bombs in 2011 confirmed that false narrative: and from the jaundiced vantage of Pyongyang, the suggestion it should now fold its genuinely strong hand – in return for the same set of ‘goodies’ offered Gaddafi– was insultingly preposterous.

Yet this was precisely the ‘deal’ offered North Korea – to its dismay and disgust – at the February 2019 Summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi. All prior signals suggested an historic breakthrough, built around a ‘Peace Declaration’ symbolically closing the wound of the Korean War, patched by a 1953 Armistice originally intended as a 90-day (!) transition to a formal treaty. Such a Declaration would not itself equate to such a treaty, or constitute a legally-binding non-aggression pact, or rid the Peninsula of nuclear weapons.

But issued in conjunction with partial (but significant) denuclearization by the North, partial (but significant) sanctions relief from the US, and partial (but significant) socio-economic cooperation and cultural exchange between the Koreas, such an ‘end-to-enmity’ statement could have inaugurated a five- or 10-year process of intense détente leading to full-fledged peace.


The clearest public indication from the US side that such a meeting of minds – and plans – was possible, came four weeks before Hanoi in remarks at Stanford University by Stephen Biegun, Trump’s Special Representative for North Korea. Relations between the two sides, Biegun acknowledged, are still “predicated on an armistice – or a ceasefire – that has been in place now for more than six decades.” Yet Trump, “unconstrained by the assumptions of his predecessors” is finally “ready to end to end this war”:

It is over. It is done. We are not going to invade North Korea. We are not seeking to topple the North Korean regime. We need to advance our diplomacy alongside our plans for denuclearization in a manner that sends that message clearly to North Korea as well. We are ready for a different future. It’s bigger than denuclearization, while it stands on the foundation of denuclearization…

And in this radical new phase of authentically post-War relations, the key to building trust would lie precisely in phasing, taking measured steps together rather than demanding leaps of faith. Biegun could not have been clearer:

[W]e have communicated to our North Korean counterparts that we are prepared to pursue – simultaneously and in parallel – all of the commitments our two leaders made in their joint statement at Singapore.

Robert Carlin (left) in conversation with US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. Stanford University, January 2019.

Robert Carlin (left) in conversation with US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. Stanford University, January 2019. (Photo by L.A. Cicero, Stanford News)

Responding to Biegun’s “wonderful, wonderful, wonderful speech,” Robert Carlin, analyst at the 38North think-tank and former nuclear negotiator with North Korea, interpreted ‘simultaneously and in parallel’ to suggest “a very different approach” to the pre-Singapore “line” of “we’re not going to do anything until you do everything.” What then happened at Hanoi – potentially the most costly missed chance of the 21st century – is recounted bitterly by 38North’s Daniel DePetris:

By all accounts, there was an opportunity at the summit to reach a partial agreement on dismantling the massive Yongbyon nuclear research facility. But at the eleventh hour, Bolton convinced Trump to put another all-or-nothing proposal on the table which demanded the North’s complete, immediate and unconditional nuclear surrender in return for US agreement to lift all sanctions on North Korea. Kim, as Bolton almost certainly expected, rejected the proposal. As a result, the US missed an opportunity to cement an important if limited agreement on the road to a more comprehensive denuclearization-for-normalization accord. Seven months after the collapse of the Hanoi Summit, Pyongyang remains embittered by what they perceived as Washington’s lack of seriousness.

Even given his starring role over “the last 20 years,” DePetris wrote, as “one of the prime reasons North Korea has made significant advances in developing nuclear weapons,” the sabotaging of the summit stands as Bolton’s “gravest offense.”

At a rambling press conference – unattended by either Bolton or Biegun – Trump conceded that the other side had been “willing to denuke a large portion of the areas we wanted,” while blaming the breakdown on the North’s insistence on 100% sanctions relief (a claim Pyongyang disputed) rather than the appearance of Gaddafi’s ghost, ‘the Libya model,’ at the negotiating table. Or as Christine Ahn, founder of the Women Cross DMZ peace group, told Newsweek in Hanoi:

Something happened. When we saw the table and John Bolton sitting at the table and Stephen Biegun sitting behind when he had done all this work to do all this preparation, it just seemed for us, ‘Oh my gosh, something fishy is going on here.’

Trump sacked his National Security Advisor in early September, waking up and smelling the coffee a mere six months too late:

He said the ‘Libyan model!’ The ‘Libyan model!’ That set us back very badly when he said that. So I think John really should take a look at how badly they’ve done in the past and maybe a new method would be very good.


But though Bolton has gone, the horse may have bolted, despite numerous attempts to lock the stable door.

Attempts including the historic, impromptu visit by Trump to meet Kim on the North Korean side of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) on June 23; high-level talks, led by Biegun for the US, in Stockholm on October 5, described by the State Department as “good” and “creative” but slammed by Biegun’s counterpart, Kim Myong Gil, as fresh proof of Washington’s “old viewpoint and attitude;” and the postponement of already scaled-backed US-South Korea military drills on November 16, a “good-faith effort,” according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, to “facilitate a political agreement – a deal, if you will – that leads to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

John Bolton (Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (John Bolton) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

John Bolton (Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (John Bolton) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Esper’s announcement was followed (November 17) by a Trump tweet to “Mr. Chairman [Kim]” insisting “I am the only one who can get you where you want to where you have to be. You should act quickly, get the deal done, see you soon!”

The immediate response (November 18), from senior Foreign Ministry official Kim Kye Gwan , displayed the depth of the bitterness left by Hanoi:

The US only seeks to earn time, pretending it has made progress in settling the issue of the Korean peninsula. We are no longer interested in such talks that bring nothing to us. As we have got nothing in return, we will no longer gift the US president with something he can boast of…. If the US truly wants to keep on [the path of] dialogue…it had better make a bold decision to drop its hostile policy…

Since April, in fact, Trump has been staring down the barrel of an end-of-year deadline set by Chairman Kim to make a decision ‘bold’ enough to prevent a return to converging war paths. Post-Hanoi, Kim has authorized a series of short- and medium-missile tests, as well as the accelerated construction of a nuclear-capable ballistic-missile submarine: and while Trump is certainly wrong to dismiss such developments as essentially irrelevant (tell that to Seoul or Tokyo) they are certainly far from the ‘thunderbolts’ Kim foresaw from the peak of Mount Paektu.

Diplomatically, too, Kim has assiduously strengthened ties with both China and Russia, just as relations between Japan and South Korea – over still-unresolved legacies of Japan’s occupation – and South Korea and the US itself – over the costs of stationing nearly 30,000 US troops in the country – reach new lows.


On October 17, the same day as DePetris’ indictment of Bolton, Robert Carlin warned starkly of the ‘Distant Thunder’ he heard fast approaching, a “situation…that could “go from very bad to much, much worse” in “the next few months”: a “cliff’s edge” to which Impeachment-consumed Washington was calamitously oblivious. How “do we stop from falling off?”

First, we have to focus on the fact that amidst and in some ways because of the current developments in domestic American politics, we are entering a very dark period internationally. To repeat a key point, if Washington is on the verge of paralysis, the rest of the world—most especially North Korea—is not.

Once we’re sufficiently sobered by that realization, then even amid our political crisis we have to think seriously and with great precision about how bad things can get with North Korea in the next six to twelve months. Only if we do that can we take the measure of how unprepared we are to cope—not in terms of military strength and ability, but rather in terms of national will and understanding of the real options and the consequences of so many years of bad decisions.

At that point, and only then, can we begin to grasp the enormity of what we face, and what we may have to do.

Japanese School Kids at Hiroshima memorial (Genbaku Dome)

Japanese school children near Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome (“Genbaku Dome”). An exhibition hall, it was the only thing left standing in the area after the bomb. Photo by Catherine Campbell (June 2014)

Am I wrong to infer that, for Carlin, what ‘we may have to do’ may include a ‘preventive’ American attack almost certainly involving (and certainly risking) the first use of nuclear weapons in war since Nagasaki? Though a diplomat like Carlin is in many respects the antithesis of a warmonger like Bolton, are the two men converging on the same dire conclusion?

While the main motivation for breaking the nuclear ‘taboo’ would be eliminating a potentially imminent threat to the homeland – killing vast numbers of ‘them’ before they threaten vast numbers of ‘us’ – a secondary ‘incentive’ might be proving to Japan and South Korea that the US nuclear ‘umbrella’ was still in place: that there was no need for a Japanese or South Korean Bomb to deter North Korea. The logic is spectacularly twisted indeed: to maintain ‘deterrence’ – the theory that nuclear weapons deter nuclear use – nuclear weapons may have to be used, thus preventing proliferation by means of mass destruction!


On November 24 – doubtless with the Korea Crisis in mind – Pope Francis delivered a ‘message on nuclear weapons’ from the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park in Nagasaki , a “place” to make “us deeply aware of the pain and horror that we human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another.” “One of the deepest longings of the human heart,” the Pope declared, “is for security, peace and stability.”

Yet – the possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is not the answer to this desire; indeed they seem always to thwart it. Our world is marked by a perverse dichotomy that tries to defend and ensure stability and peace through a false sense of security sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust, one that ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any form of dialogue.

Pope Francis greets Japanese Catholics at Mass in Nagasaki, Japan Nov. 24. (Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

Pope Francis greets Japanese Catholics at Mass in Nagasaki, Japan Nov. 24. (Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

Because of his conviction that “peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation,” Pope Francis has extended the Church’s condemnation of nuclear weapons to include not just their actual or threatened use but their “very possession.” Where ‘deterrence’ was previously accepted by the Vatican as an acceptable compromise on the path to eventual disarmament, it now stands as a station on the road to hell, a nuclear Cross with no resurrection.

To register its new, unqualified rejection of the Bomb, the Holy See signed and ratified the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on the day it opened for signature, 20 September 2017 – just 17 days after North Korea’s diabolical, thermonuclear ‘sermon on the mount.’ The Pope’s radical stance has mortified many conservative Catholics, particularly in the United States, as well as elating anti-nuclear activists in and beyond the Catholic fold.

But perhaps all can agree that the day after another Hiroshima, a new Nagasaki, or an even worse horror, it will be too late to ask: what on Earth possessed us?

Featured image: L – Kim Jong-un; R -Satellite photo of North Korea’s Mount Mantap.

Sean Howard



Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.