Kim Disappears and the World Fears: North Korean Succession and the Potential for Nuclear Catastrophe

Suggestions that Kim Jong-un is dead or dying, potentially following heart surgery, have been dismissed by the South Korean government. Yet it would hardly be a shock if the chronically obese, chain-smoking 36-year old suddenly keeled over, leaving an uncertain succession in Pyongyang.

Not exactly a picture of health

Such a scenario is scary; it is unclear whether Kim has any children but it is certain that none of them are going to be old enough to ascend to the leadership of the world’s most secretive state should their father die now. That raises severe questions over who will reign, whether a power struggle will be initiated, or perhaps even a popular revolution. Significantly, what will happen to North Korea’s nuclear programme?

It is now widely accepted that North Korea is a nuclear power and Kim, despite his eccentric nature, is not a crazed lunatic bent on global destruction. Rather, he has cleverly used the threat of nuclear escalation to prop up his regime – which keeps the vast majority of the population in destitution – whilst securing international summits with Donald Trump and preventing undue interference by other outside powers.

What will happen to North Korea’s nuclear programme in the event of Kim’s death is as murky as any other intelligence coming out of the country. Equally concerning is what could transpire should there be a nuclear accident in North Korea. Would scientists and officials try and keep the news from Kim? Would they downplay its significance? Would Kim endeavour to obscure the facts from the outside world, rather than seek itself? The answer to all of these questions is ‘very possibly’.

Certainly, when the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl plant in Soviet Ukraine in 1986, a terrifying collective denial set-in. Nobody wanted to acknowledge the terrible reality of the explosion in Reactor No. 4 because that would signify complicity. In Soviet language, that meant losing your job as a best-case scenario, expulsion from the Communist Party and imprisonment being equally likely punishments.

The destroyed Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl

Ukrainian Party officials were powerless to act without Moscow’s approval and the apathy that engulfed the country as quickly as the radioactive cloud in the aftermath of the explosion proved terminal. Nobody tried to understand the problem because they were downplaying it. Nobody called for an immediate evacuation of the nearby region because that would cause panic. Never mind that people were getting sicker by the second and the reactor was potentially on the verge of a more catastrophic meltdown which would have had greater global ramifications. In a state where the word of the Party was everything, the silence from Moscow was enough to ensure inaction.

By the time those in power had accepted what everyone on the ground knew – that a massive expulsion of radioactive material had escaped the damaged Chernobyl reactor – it was too late to reverse the consequences. As anyone who has read Serhii Plokhii’s excellent Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe will know, these consequences are still being felt today.

It would not be surprising if a similar fate befell North Korea if there was an incident at one of the country’s nuclear facilities. Rumours abound about Kim’s ruthlessness; nobody is going to relish telling the Supreme Leader that a new Chernobyl has arrived on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea is thought to have a number of nuclear facilities

The case for non-nuclear proliferation is often seen in terms of the potential for a state to fire a nuclear warhead at an enemy, setting off a retaliatory chain reaction that ends in the destruction of a large part of the planet.

But the prospect of a nuclear accident remains a far more alarming and realistic disaster. That is why it is imperative that any country with nuclear facilities is open to inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who can ensure compliance with best practice and technical rigour.

Nuclear power is a clean source of energy that could transform the fortunes of the planet if wisely deployed. In the hands of rogue states, however, the doomsday scenarios we all dread appear much closer to home. Whether Kim is dead or alive, North Korea is the likely centre of a nuclear Armageddon.

Trump Ascent Raises Nuclear War Fears: yet a nuclear accident remains far more terrifying

The possibility of nuclear war is a persistent concern of the human race. It seems to be the only way in which we can destroy ourselves in one fell swoop. Perhaps Donald Trump’s ascent to the US presidency will exacerbate these fears; perhaps his isolationist tendencies will alleviate them. Either way, the fear of nuclear destruction remains a constant, even if such a likelihood is in reality remote.

Some fear that a Trump presidency will lead to nuclear proliferation and perhaps war

Whether it is rogue states possessing nuclear weapons (North Korea, Iran), deranged leaders with their fingers on the red button (Kim Jong-un, Trump?), the potential for swift nuclear proliferation (the Middle East, Asia-Pacific) or the acquisition of nuclear devices by terrorist organisations, the worst-case scenario of nuclear war never fails to unsettle world leaders.

In part it is a hangover from the Cold War when mutually assured nuclear destruction did at times seem imminent, no more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, as Dr Strangelove magnificently parodied, it would have taken major misunderstandings and maniacal decision-making for such an eventuality to have materialised.

A more plausible scenario for nuclear annihilation is an accident. We have seen in recent years the devastating radioactive fallout caused by the Chernobyl disaster – whose crumbling reactor is soon to be encased by a giant shield – and the Japanese tsunami of 2011 which caused major damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986
Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986

Such terrifying incidents have raised major questions over civilian nuclear power generation, not to mention further strengthening the case for nuclear non-proliferation.

Just as alarming as these unfortunate, if potentially avoidable, disasters are the ‘near-miss’ operational incidents involving nuclear weapons, most of which remain shrouded in secrecy.

The possible discovery by a diver last week of a missing Mark IV nuclear bomb off the coast of British Columbia brought such eventualities back into the spotlight. In 1950, a US Air Force B-36 aircraft began to experience engine trouble during a flight between Alaska and Texas. The device now thought to have been uncovered off the Canadian coast was jettisoned before the crew ejected, allowing the plane to continue on autopilot until it crashed into a mountain range. This was the first recorded loss of a nuclear weapon in history.

Although some aviation experts have dismissed the possibility of the device being the missing Mark IV, either way it is not nuclear-ready; i.e. it is has a lead, uranium and TNT filling but not the plutonium necessary for a nuclear detonation.

Other past operational incidents have further demonstrated the precariousness of ‘routine’ nuclear weapons deployment.

For instance, on the 27th July 1956 a B-47 bomber crashed into a storage igloo at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, within which three Mark VI nuclear bombs sat silently. As with the B-36 incident, the bombs did not contain any fissile material yet they had a considerable amount of high explosive content and a detonation could have proved catastrophic.

More controversially, on the 21st January 1968 a B-52 bomber crashed near Thule Air Base in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs on board during a ‘Chrome Dome’ alert mission at the height of the Cold War.

The nuclear payload of the four devices ruptured and dispersed across the sea ice as the conventional explosives in the aircraft detonated. More worryingly, despite an extensive clean-up operation by the American and Danish authorities, it has since been revealed that a secondary stage of one of the weapons was never accounted for. The Danes had kept the American nuclear presence on Greenlandic soil a secret from their own people, leading to a major political scandal almost three decades later.

Blackened ice at the Thule crash site
Blackened ice at the Thule crash site

There have been further military-related nuclear incidents, several associated with the meltdown of reactors in Soviet submarines. It is likely that others have yet to be disclosed and perhaps never will be without a whistleblower breaking the radio silence.

It seems that the apocalyptic consequences of a military-nuclear disaster resonate with us and our leaders in a more poignant way than ongoing crises such as climate change, rising sea levels and mass population displacement, all of which will ultimately have dire consequences if left unresolved.

Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire - possibly caused with a collision with a US sub - in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered
Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire – possibly caused with a collision with a US sub – in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered

Whilst efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology at a state level remain critical, putting further safeguards in place to avert an accidental nuclear catastrophe are even more important, for such a scenario is considerably more likely than nuclear war.

As Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control has demonstrated, there is an ‘illusion of safety’ when it comes to nuclear weapons, regardless of the perceived responsibility of those powers controlling them.

In the absence of a nuclear-free world – now an unattainable goal – it is hoped that military leaders, and their counterparts in the civilian world, take note of the near misses of the past to try and securitise the future as best they can.