The escalating crisis provoked by North Korea’s successful goading of US president Trump may not be entirely comparable with the Cuban missile crisis just yet, but any comparison of main players of 1963 and today’s lead actors must reach a chilling conclusion. It is not by any stretch an indulgence in rose-tinted nostalgia to suggest that John F Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev, both Second World War veterans, seem a Cicero and a Caesar compared to today’s main actors. Kennedy was urbane, educated, charming, self-assured and, even if not faultless, could hardly offer a greater contrast to his blowhard, volatile, wilfully ignorant successor. Khrushchev, who did so much to undo Stalin’s legacy of tyranny, was no saint either but as supreme leaders go he showed, at the critical moment in the second half of the last century, a human heart. Catastrophe was averted. There are no available indications to suggest North Korea’s hereditary dictator Kim Jong-un is capable of such constraint. Rather, the drip-drip of salacious detail from his impoverished country suggest he is at best a paranoid sadist and at worst unhinged. As yet, only one of those charges can be
levelled with any credibility at President Trump.
On an ordinary September Tuesday, when Ireland is
bracketed between two All-Ireland weekends, these comparisons might make for a diversionary half hour in a senior history class. However, at a moment when James Mattis, the US defence secretary and one of the saner, real world people in the Trump White House, warns North Korea that any threat to the US or its allies would be met with a “massive military response ... we are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea”, he warned but “we have many options to do so” it’s time to, like it or not, take notice.
The worst possible endgame would be a nuclear war. The second, a conventional one. These truths must inform every decision world leaders — especially China — make in coming days, weeks and months. Everything that can possibly be done to prevent a military confrontation must be considered despite history’s hard lessons about the pointlessness of
appeasing deluded, determined dictators.
The threat of nuclear war may not have the potency it once did, especially as WWII fades from living memory. But one simple reference might alert us anew to the horrors one would bring. The British government has, in central London, at least one nuclear bunker. It’s called Pindar after an ancient Greek poet. The reference is as informative as it is chilling. In 335BC, Alexander the Great razed Thebes but left Pindar’s house untouched — it alone was spared because some of his poems praised the king’s ancestor. This suggests Pindar’s architects believe the building would be one of very few to survive a nuclear attack on London. However remote that prospect seems, the 10m people living in Seoul must wish they had access to such a refuge.
A crisis like this can generate its own unstoppable, deadly momentum. World diplomacy must ensure this one does not.