OPINION: Things to know about nuclear warfare

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Photo credit: Kyle Hampel

The North Korean dictatorship has once again decided to flex its tiny muscles on the world stage to make sure the country stays in the headlines, but something is different this time around. The United Nations is scheduling emergency meetings and sirens are going off in Japan, not to mention the threats coming from our president’s flabby mouth. What gives?

Simply put, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is increasing at a worrying rate, and the supreme leader is so emotionally unstable that even in 2017 he makes the leaders of other countries look good. Between Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un, North Korea has been sorely lacking in the leadership department as of late.

While this is all obviously bad, what exactly is causing the world’s governments to respond in such a worried fashion right now? To truly understand why North Korea is starting to look like a serious threat, we need to brush up on some nuclear vocabulary. It’s time to play a game called Global Thermonuclear War.

Atomic vs. hydrogen bombs

To most people, every bomb with an adjective in the name is the same deal — atomic bombs, nuclear bombs and hydrogen bombs all kill people, so what’s the difference?

Let’s start by talking about an explosive that every cowboy-loving layperson is familiar with: dynamite. Patented by Alfred Nobel in 1867, dynamite was the explosive of choice for demolishing rocky hills and carving out tunnels during the construction of American railroads in the 19th century. Pretty powerful stuff, right?

Enter the atomic bomb, also known as the nuclear bomb. Atomic bombs detonate by splitting a large atom into two smaller ones, a process known to you science-y types as nuclear fission. It’s the atomic equivalent of a divorce, and the aftermath is more explosive than anything a petty ex-lover could ever manage.

The first atomic bomb ever used in warfare hit Hiroshima, Japan, with the explosive equivalent of detonating nearly 63 million sticks of dynamite, and that’s not even mentioning the radioactive fallout that came down from the sky afterwards.

Years later, old Uncle Sam did it again by inventing the hydrogen bomb, also known as a thermonuclear bomb. As you might guess by the extra two syllables, thermonuclear weapons are much, much worse than nuclear weapons.

Hydrogen bombs work by combining two atoms into one bigger atom, a classic case of nuclear fusion. Just to keep things in perspective, nuclear fusion is so explosive that it serves as a fuel source for the sun. Hydrogen bombs often use atomic bombs just as a detonator to start the fusion process.

North Korea recently claimed to have successfully tested its first hydrogen bomb that can fit inside an intercontinental missile. This hydrogen bomb is estimated to have had an explosive yield equivalent to 1 billion sticks of dynamite. Yes, billion with a B.

While the North Korean government is hardly a reliable source of information, the seismic activity in the region indicates that their latest press releases are probably true. That’s right: these explosions are massive enough to cause earthquakes.

If North Korea continues their thermonuclear testing, things could get worse — the United States’ very first hydrogen bomb test in 1952 was equivalent to 42 billion sticks of dynamite, or approximately 666 times the explosive force that decimated Hiroshima (how devilish). If left unchecked, it could be only a matter of time until North Korea is a major nuclear threat to the entire world.

Nuclear deterrence theory

The theory of nuclear deterrence first came into prominence during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and it’s vital to understanding the risk that North Korea poses to our current, non-radioactive way of life.

Nuclear deterrence is based on a doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” — essentially, no one will use a nuclear weapon against a country that has its own nuclear weapons because any retaliation will lead to the devastation of both countries in the end. You shoot them, they shoot you back. Everyone loses.

In theory, nuclear-equipped countries have no incentive to attack each other, while also having no incentive to disarm themselves, thus leaving the world in cautious equilibrium. While the number of nuclear-equipped countries is slowly growing, this is essentially where we are today. No nuclear weapons have been used outside of testing purposes since the end of World War II.

There have been many close calls, but so far, world leaders and their military personnel have been smart enough to realize that destroying another country with radioactive hellfire will almost certainly cause their own country to succumb to the same fate.

This is where I think Kim Jong-un becomes an issue. He is a short, chubby man with a receding hairline at an age where he is long overdue for a quarter-life crisis. As the heir to a dictatorship, he has been spoiled rotten for his entire life and is overeager to prove his self-proclaimed awesomeness to the world by showing off his big, scary missiles. This man is not a calm, methodical leader — he is a babbling man child who is clearly compensating for something.

On the subject of man children who are probably not fit to lead a country, His Orangeness Donald Trump is not helping matters either. Love him or hate him, Trump has shown himself to be amoral and aggressive in every regard, likely a side effect of being a business magnate and former reality television star. While he is at least slightly more sane than North Korea’s supreme leader, he is still infamous for his impulsive judgment and easily bruised ego.

I personally believe you have to be at least a little bit crazy to run a country (seriously, who would want that job?), but the dangerously eccentric worldviews of these two men could potentially lead to a disaster or even a war in a worst-case scenario. North Korea has already flown a harmless test missile over Japan in the past two weeks as a not-so-subtle reminder that they can fire nuclear missiles at any time — what could be next?

Granted, both North Korea and the Trump Administration have set a strong historical precedent for making threats they have no intention of following up on. I would say at this point that a thermonuclear strike from either side is unlikely, but I’m not a geopolitical expert.

Still, the political landscape of 2017 is a weird and illogical place where even the craziest things imaginable are no longer a surprise. A single smarmy comment from Trump about Kim Jong-un’s boxy haircut could be all it takes to turn the free world into a thermonuclear hellscape.

In the meantime, let’s hope that deterrence theory keeps working out.

Kyle Hampel is a junior in English. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to [email protected]

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Those words you just read were written by me, Kyle Hampel. I'm an English major who has very strong feelings about barbecue pizza and the Oxford comma. I like to write articles about my strong opinions, too! I also play lots of musical instruments and video games, but never at the same time. Beloit, Kansas, is proud to call me their own, along with several other towns I've lived in that aren't as special to me.