The problem with nuclear madmen

What if he had had a nuclear bomb?

One of the happy developments in human history is that, by and large, we’re no longer ruled by madmen.

Midway through the last century, most of the world’s people were governed by tyrannical despots who were dangerously unhinged from reality, from Hitler to Mao to Stalin.

It used to be a fairly normal state of affairs for heads of state to keep their power even when certifiably bonkers, or at least defiantly neurotic.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, who helped topple Europe into the First World War, was hardly the sort of guy you’d want holding the reins of one of the world’s biggest economies — not to mention one of the world’s biggest armies.

Fortunately, the last few decades have seen the rapid spread of true democracies.

And even countries like China and Russia have evolved toward more complex, participatory forms of government.

These days, to find a sociopath like Mussolini or a crackpot adventurer like Napolean in any role of real power you have to dig right down to the bottom of the national barrel.

Countries like Iran and North Korea — and to a lesser extent, Cuba, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe — still suffer under the rein of megalomaniacs.  But you can do the math.

With the exception of Venezuela’s oil and Iran’s dabbling in regional terrorism, these states are bit players on the global stage.

The wrinkle, as we are reminded today, is that some of these nutters are scrambling to perfect nuclear weapons technology, and perhaps even armaments sophisticated enough to target the US.

In any other country, Kim Jong Eun would be a goofball nerd, acting out his sad fantasies on a Nintendo console.  But in North Korea, he’s just triggered a powerful atomic bomb.

And in any other part of the world, Iran’s fundamentalist clerics would be fringe theologians churning out apocalyptic visions to small congregations and muttering their sad, misogynistic social views.

Yet Tehran moves ever closer to perfecting nuclear-weapons technology.

Some pessimists are convinced that nuclear proliferation is inevitable and that these weapons will eventually be used, either by rogue states or by the equally mentally ill fanatics who lead many terrorist organizations.

I’m not so sure.  I wonder if we’re not experiencing the last growing pains of a world transitioning to a different and better and more peaceful way of governing our affairs.

From the Arab spring to the tense stand-off on the Korean Peninsula, these might one day be seen as sort of mopping-up developments, the last death throes of a horribly outdated form of government.

Still, it’s clear that vigilance and care are very much needed in the short term.

Kim Jong Eun will never field an army like that of Germany in the 1940s, and I suspect that within a couple of decades his sad prison state will have crumbled.

But for now, these throwbacks to another, darker age could still do a lot of terrible harm.

54 Comments on “The problem with nuclear madmen”

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    Most of the megalomaniacs have transitioned to the financial sphere where they can spin their domination plots and even if they fail they have golden parachutes. Either way the average citizen pays the real cost of feeding the power hungry.

  2. Brian says:

    Jim –

    I’m not entirely sure about this parallel, but even if true it represents a vast improvement over the circumstances of our parents’ era.

    A guy who bankrupts a megacorporation or wipes out a pension fund does a lot less harm than a guy who marches into the Sudenteland or marches whole ethnic groups off to the gulag archipelago.

    -Brian, NCPR

  3. John Warren says:

    Hugo Chavez is a megalomaniac? Last time I checked America was the one waging perpetual warfare killing innocent people around the world. How long have we been at war? How many years? How many tens (or is it hundreds) of thousands of people have we killed?

    Hugo Chavez was democratically in hopes that his country would rise from centuries of oppression foisted on them in part by YOUR megalomaniacal leaders.

    How about some perspective in your world leader denunciations?

  4. Mervel says:

    A lot of dictators are elected; once.

    I am not sure Chavez would however be in the same category as the others.

    In the end power freaks cannot give up power and that is the true sign. I do think if you are going to include Chavez you need to include the Saudi family also.

    Bur anyway I think outside of North Korea, the other countries developing or who have nuclear weapons are not fully crazy in the sense that they are aware of assured destruction and do want to live. Iran is run by a nut and the clerics that run Iran are nutty in our world view, but they do have support from a broad cross section of Iranians. The question is do they understand that if they use a nuclear weapon they and their country would be destroyed? I think they do. I am not sure the North Koreans understand that or if they do they don’t seem to care, which is the real scary part.

  5. Pete Klein says:

    North Korea has been a rather odd place since its inception.
    Yes, Kim like his dad appears to be a bit nutty but I don’t worry about either him or the nutty Sayyed Ali Khamenei in Iran because if either of them tried anything, they and their countries can easily be obliterated.
    I think they know this, so I don’t see them doing anything really stupid.

  6. Brian says:

    I agree that Chavez, like the Castro brothers, is in a different camp than North Korea’s leaders. Even Iran’s leadership has a more nuanced place in society, involving some level of local self-determination.

    So there are textures to these things.

    But yeah, at the end of the day I think Chavez is a nutter about on part with Kaiser Wilhelm.

    It doesn’t help his reputation that (like Castro) he took a potentially transformative democratic moment and translated that into a charismatic dictatorship.

    The New Yorker’s latest issue has a devastating portrait of his rule.

    It’s also worth pointing out that Chavez’s reign (like that of the Castro brothers) runs counter to the profound trend toward democracy in the rest of Latin America.

    Finally, yes, democracies still do bad things, particularly (and I don’t think this is a rationalization) where their interests and security are pitted against non-democracies.

    But liberals and conservatives alike often conflate imperfection on the part of democratic governments with the much more grievous failures and shortcomings of non-democratic governments.

    –Brian, NCPR

  7. Paul says:

    I think that guy put his mustache on upside down?

  8. Jeff says:

    The leaders might be removed but where is the control on the nuclear material? The reason some countries have used to acquire nuclear weapons- to defend themselves against those who have superior power- is akin to the claim of some here that they need firearms to protect against tyranny. Is there a parallel between either group and alienation? That they alienate themselves and disregard others in the world.

    If not countries acquiring the nuclear material, terriorists will do it for punishment and to seek respect for their philosophy.

    It all provides some justification for having major powers in the world but when that power is mis-handled (“overuse” of drones perhaps) those under the thumb of the major powers resent the oppression. These are the “forces” that may never go away and prevent permanent peace.

  9. Paul says:

    “These are the “forces” that may never go away and prevent permanent peace.”

    Jeff of course they will never go away. That is the nature of man. (and I say “man” in a gender neutral kind of way, although women do seem to have a better nature in that regard!)

  10. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Jeff, you can’t really compare an enumerated right to individual arms to a rouge nation seeking nuclear arms with the stated intent of obliterating a neighboring nation. That’s kinda nutty all in itself.

    Brian, I wish I could have your optimistic outlook. I’m afraid I see things from a different viewpoint and feel that this is just the opening act of a new international paradigm where we no longer have the Axis and the Allies so clearly defined. My concern is that the backstage players will have a lot more influence than will ever be apparent. North Korea is a more of a wild card on that stage than ever before. I don’t think they can actually hurt “us”, but South Korea or Japan, oh yeah. And then there’s the whole currency/financial war that’s starting.

    I hope it all settles down, but I kind of doubt it will happen.

  11. Mervel says:

    I think we will see a nuclear detonation in our lifetime. I of course pray it does not happen. But just given the odds that there are numerous individuals willing to strap bombs to themselves and blow themselves up along with innocents or walk into an elementary school and shoot little kids, and given the fact that nuclear technology is available and some groups are sophisticated enough to use it at least in some rudimentary sort of way; would lean toward a probability of it happening.

    I don’t think we will see world wide nuclear war as was once a possibility so that is a step in the right direction. I think Pakistan would use nuclear weapons if the right people within Pakistan got control of the government and the military which controls the bombs. But it would be regional.

  12. Mervel says:

    North Korea would use them on South Korea or Japan I don’t think they will be able to target the US. Iran may use them if their regime was truly threatened in a last ditch effort, but in general I think Iranians have a much more open society than North Korea and a more stable society than Pakistan.

  13. Paul says:

    “But it would be regional.” I wish this were true but nothing is regional anymore. If North Korea put even a crude nuclear tipped missile together (which it appears they may be working on) and shot it toward the US west coast even if it fell into the ocean the effects would be worldwide and very serious. The same if they hit Japan or South Korea, or Pakistan shot at their neighbor (which would be suicidal by the way). You think the economy collapsed after September 11 2001 that will look like nothing. This is very dangerous. I hope our government knows what it is doing?

  14. Peter Hahn says:

    lets hope China does something

  15. Ken Hall says:

    Brian says: “in North Korea, he’s just triggered a powerful atomic bomb”

    The descriptions I have read indicated that it was a 7 Kilo Ton yield, yes powerful relative to a 2000 pound HE bomb; but, hardly a “powerful atomic bomb”. The Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima had about 16 Kilo Tons yield and the Fat Man dropped upon Nagasaki had about 21 Kilo Tons yield. The purported largest Nuclear weapon ever in the US arsenal had 50 a Mega Ton yield and the Soviet Union purportedly had a 100 Mega Ton yield weapon which were respectively each about 7000 and 14000 times larger than the North Korean weapon. These gigantic weapons have been reported to have been dismantled and supposedly the current nuclear weapons average between 1-10 Mega Tons a mere 140 to 1400 times the 7 Kilo Ton weapon.

    At the height of the lunacy standoff between the US and the former Soviet Union is has been variously estimated that the combined total number of nuclear weapons was in the range of 80000. The current purported numbers are in the 7000-8000 range, each. This is roughly a quarter of the what the “hawks” at one time were convinced we needed to keep us safe. I don’t know about the rest of you; but, I can barely sleep through the night now, waking up in cold sweats worrying that we are insufficiently armed to ensure that we can contain those war mongering North Koreans.

  16. Paul says:

    Ken, yes this is relatively small but the real significance apparently from what I have read is that this is a Uranium based bomb. This means that NK is saving it’s plutonium for the other 5-10 bombs it could make. Uranium based bombs are apparently much easier to deal with. The US didn’t even test its Hiroshima bomb before we dropped it and killed over 100,000 people. This means that NK is making enriched uranium again somewhere and now they can start selling it, which they will do. I would worry much more about the potential buyers.

  17. Mervel says:

    So what would we do if NK nuked South Korea and followed up with an invasion?

    As Ken points out NK does not have nuclear weapons that could really threaten us right now; but if they used them in the region we would be in a war. One that we may not be really prepared for, NK is much much stronger than Iran or Pakistan or Iraq was; they have a large military and very strong air defense systems.

  18. Mervel says:

    But I would hope that South Korea and Japan are strong enough to repel that sort of an invasion, I think that is the direction we should be looking at for the future.

  19. Paul says:

    I think Peter has a great point. I also hope China does something other than just “condemn” the test. They must realize how this could effect their country.

  20. Mervel says:

    But having the crazy uncle down there prevents South Korea and Japan from expanding their influence.

    Also how much influence does China have at this point? These guys really do some insane or at least so isolated that they have become cult like in a way of magical thinking and detachment from reality.

  21. Mervel says:

    What country is a bigger threat to the US Afghanistan or North Korea?

  22. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Uh guys, I’m sure China is “doing something”. North Korea is Chinas vicious little Pit Bull. No offense to Pit Bulls intended. China has used NK in the past and will use it in the future as the squeaky wheel that takes attention away from China. China is likely the far greater threat in real terms to the US but it’s not a shooting war you really have to worry about with them. With them, and good old Russia, it’s the cyber warfare, the spying, the use of the useful idiots like NK to push and shove and draw attention to the left hand while the right hand is doing it’s harm. Yeah, NK does this every year when the people are starving and they need food desperately. But NK is that Pit ( or pick whatever breed you want if you’re a Pit lover) you can’t ever really trust not to turn and bite you. As long as China plays them and feeds them they’re useful tools. If China really gets them PO’d NK is as likely to launch into China as Japan!

    Mervel, NK is not so likely to nuke SK as to pound Seoul into dust with conventional weapons. If war is declared Seoul is simply history. IIRC the largest single concentration of artillery in history is all within 20 miles of the DMZ and pointed south. Seoul doesn’t have a chance. At least that was the intel some years back, I doubt much has changed. The SK military will respond and I have no doubt they’ll hammer the north, whether it’ll be enough to win is up for grabs. I kind of doubt it, not without US and NATO help.

    Japan has a self defense force, it’s relatively small. Japan is another nation that depends largely on US defense. I don’t know that the JDF would be able to actually stop NK at all or even slow them down.

  23. mervel says:

    Yes I agree with your assessment.

    I also agree that NK would invade using conventional weapons, which they have a HUGE amount of as you point out.

    So here we have these two relatively prosperous countries, Japan and South Korea. I think South Korea has a decent military, they also supported us in Vietnam as our biggest ally on the ground I think they are doing what they can do; but Japan I think we need to encourage to build a decent military one that matches their GDP at our levels of spending, if that means changing our WWII treaties then we need to do that. Why we think we have to defend Japan with a huge eastern navel and military presence I don’t really understand, Japan should be the one who is worried about China, but they can use our military to reduce the burden. It is time for that to change, it is time for the US to start taking care of our own people. Why should the US population have a higher poverty rate than Japan and yet we spend so much defending them?

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Mervel, Afghanistan has never been a threat to the US, Al Qaeda attacked us, the Taliban had no interest in anything beyond their own area.

    Non-state actors are the big threat. North Korea is vulnerable to pressure from China. Venezuela? Cuba? If we stopped trying to get rid of their leaders with exploding cigars and started increasing trade with them we would do better at changing their forms of government.

  25. Paul says:

    Knuck, that is no fun. Where wold we get our material for James Bond? It sounds like NK would probably be open to exporting some of it’s enriched uranium?

    Besides we got it all figured out with the state of the union.

    Republicans say DRILL.

    Democrats say SPEND.

    Sounds like the second term is already over.

  26. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul, since we are entering the realm of speculation – my very favorite of all possible worlds – let me say that I am not convinced that NK even has a nuke.

    Like Iran, which regularly announces new additions to their arsenal like the stealth submarine (how do you know they have a stealth submarine? well, nobody has ever seen it. See? it works perfectly!), North Korea could be saving a lot of technical effort by perpetrating a convincing fraud.

    If I were in control of NK and I wanted to be a James Bond type villain I would get a bunch of miners with pick-axes and shovels to mine a seam of coal under a mountain. leaving columns of stone to hold the stone above. When the coal was depleted I would obtain a very small amount of fissile material – probably a fraction of an ounce would do – grind it up and put it into wadding in a big air cannon. Put the cannon in the mouth of the mine, place dynamite charges around the columns in the mine and fire the canon at the same time as the dynamite. The mountaintop would collapse with an enormous shock wave and the “escaping” radioactive material would be detected in the atmosphere. Then I would claim publicly that I had no nuclear program while at the same time I would have one of my diplomats ‘let slip” that we have advanced nuclear technology. I would also built a giant stage set with underwater submarine bays, shark tanks, and an island with hundreds of scantily clad men and women who would be charged with propagating a new super-race.

    And there is NOTHING you could do to stop me. Heh heh heh heh!

  27. Rancid Crabtree says:

    We have the huge far eastern naval and ground forces there because of more than Japan. It’s Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the fact Alaska is up there in the northern Pacific. It’s ensuring freedom of the seas and in a large way protecting US assets. And of course it’s contributing to the economy over there. Those countries all hate having us there until we talk about actually leaving $$$$$$$$$.

    It’s also the show of force for not so nice people like NK, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, etc. I don’t know the best way to handle things but if we back out another entity rushes in to fill the power vacuum. We left the Panama Canal Zone, foolishly, and China stepped in. Finding the right balance is hard to do.

  28. Rancid Crabtree says:

    That’s be a great feat Knuckle, but as I understand it Intel can actually differentiate a nuke from HE from seismic from large landslides from meteor strikes from underground gas explosions. Something about the shock waves and how they differ. –

  29. Peter Hahn says:

    Pit bulls that arent cared for frequently bite their owners. (also no offense to Pit bulls intended)

  30. Paul says:

    Knuck, I like it. That may work better than that cockamamie idea to stuff the San Andres fault with explosives to set off a giant earthquake. Even if Grace Slick didn’t stop it by blowing herself up with the bomb it never would have worked.

  31. Paul says:

    Oh, I forgot. Drill.

  32. Kathy says:

    I wonder if we’re not experiencing the last growing pains of a world transitioning to a different and better and more peaceful way of governing our affairs.

    This is the liberal mindset. We are evolving, progressing, into a new world.

    Don’t count on it.

    History repeats itself and nothing is new under the sun.

    I’m not radical but I’m sensible. In one moment everything can change. That’s the way of the world.

  33. Mervel says:


    Exactly! Yet where are we letting our people die right now, today?

  34. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Dont look at me, I’m against wars unless there is no other choice and there were other choices in Afghanistan that weren’t tried.

  35. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Rancid, do I have to explain every single nuance of my evil plan? Can’t you figure some of it out on your own?

    The seismic wave would register not as high explosives but as a small blast followed instantly by the collapse of millions of tons of rock. It would be a pattern only very rarely seen – maybe only once. Add the small escape of radiation and some disinformation and intelligence people would not be able to dismiss it out of hand. Especially when I started wiping out the entire network of satellites at the same time with my other super secret but easily achievable low tech weapons system. But I cant give away all my secrets. And if North Korea wants to know how I could do it they would first have to pay me ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS!!!

  36. Walker says:

    Well, let’s see, Kathy, two hundred years ago, four million slaves were legally owned by Americans, and women lacked not only the right to vote, but also the right to control property that they brought to a marriage. They also couldn’t serve on juries. Indians were being exterminated. The Spanish in the west were being driven from lands they had owned for generations. Women couldn’t work outside the home– virtually their only possible occupation was that of housewife. Death in childbirth was very common, and childhood mortality was high, caused by diseases that have been eliminated or are easily treated today. On a broader scale, we haven’t had a world war in sixty-eight years. China, India and South America are emerging from incredible levels of oppression.

    You have to be not paying attention to think that we are not progressing.

  37. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Knuckle, I can easily foil your diabolical plan simply by donning my Green Lantern outfit, (mine is the pre-gay GL BTW), and creating a shield over the blast site. If needs be I can call in the Justice League and have Wonder Woman tie you up with her Golden Lasso while Aquaman floods your mine.

    Wow, this is getting really weird……

    Walker, you point to some of the highs, but the lows are still in place and doing just fine. Drug cartels slaughtering people on our southern border, Muslin extremists killing their daughters for speaking their minds, slavery is alive and well but is called “human trafficking” now.

    Evil is alive and well in this old world.

  38. Walker says:

    “Evil is alive and well in this old world.”

    Well, sure, and it will ever be thus. But I think you have to look at history with a mighty jaundiced eye not to see things getting better for a whole lot of people. Just because things aren’t fabulous for everyone, doesn’t mean things aren’t better for many.

  39. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Any time Wonder Woman wants to tie me up with her Golden Lasso she can just go ahead and try.

    This proves the old adage; DC comics for conservatives, Marvel for liberals.

  40. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    If you have Cat Woman’s phone number send her over too!

  41. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Them thar is fightin’ words! I’m equally at home with Marvel, by Odins Hammer! It would be a simple thing to contact my good friends the Silver Surfer, Mandrake, The X men and of course Hulk and Sgt Rock to help me.

    Sure wish I had all those comics today. Not sure if I’d sell them or just lose myself in them……

  42. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Walker, the point is that for every step forward we take in one place, we take a step back in another. Some nations may indeed be stepping forward into a new world, but in others things get worse, not better. That’s all, just noting the reality of things.

  43. Marlo Stanfield says:

    The world’s a volatile place, always has been, always will be. But I’m not too worried that Iran or North Korea is going to start a nuclear war. Even people who believe in things we hate, who we see as evil, are usually connected to reality. They won’t start a war with us, because they don’t want to lose everything and die. Which they know would happen if, say, Iran attacked Israel or North Korea attacked the south. If they were really unhinged, they would’ve done those things already.

    Take Stalin. He was evil, no doubt, but his actions were rational, and for him, they worked. He crushed his internal opposition, made himself absolute dictator, built Russia into an industrial power and ended WWII with a ring of satellite states to buffer his homeland from an invasion. Doesn’t sound like the actions of a madman. Iranian politics are as complicated as ours, there’s a bunch of different factions in their government, enough to prevent some crazy war that would end in the country being destroyed in a blaze of glory from American bombs. North Korea? Their leaders want the power and respect nuclear weapons give them, but I think they care more about their luxurious lifestyles than they would about dying a principled death. We spent 40 years as mortal geopolitical enemies with a nuclear armed Soviet Union. We were taught to hate them and everything they stood for and they us. But nuclear war never happened. The Russians loved their children too. I think the Iranians do as well.

    I’m not saying lose sight of the fact that we’re rivals, or enemies. But even most of our enemies are guided by the same kind of calculations and thought process that drives us. That’s always been the case and still hasn’t changed. As long as we stay strong we’ll be OK.

  44. Walker says:

    “I’m not saying lose sight of the fact that we’re rivals, or enemies.”

    Well we could work on losing sight of that fact. Look at our relations with Germany, Italy and Japan. Not to mention Great Britain and Spain. (Interesting: we’ve never fought the French.)

  45. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It is interesting how much disdain the American people hold for our oldest and best ally, France.

  46. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Actually, we did fight a sort of war with France Knuckle, look up “The Quasi War”. We also fought Vichy France in WW2. And of course Frances involvement in the middle east after 9/11 lead to what some consider France becoming our enemy since they certainly weren’t our allies. If you search out “The French War Against America” by Barringer you can see that they may well be our oldest and best enemy! Frances aid to the US was mostly a “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” thing.

    Walker, we bent over backwards to be Russias friend after the fall of the USSR. We’ve sent numerous delegations to NK to try and work out a peace. We’ve done the same in many other places. It takes 2 willing, honest parties to come to an agreement.

  47. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Just something to consider. Russian Bear bombers were just chased off from Guam. Russia is flexing it’s muscles. Some things don’t change.

  48. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I stand corrected. So since France was really our enemy even though they were helping us out and they were enemies of Britain then we were allies of the British during our Revolution because the enemy of our enemy was our friend.

    This is an exciting new field of study for political scientists everywhere! Let’s open the “I’m My Own Grandpa” school of government to teach this.

  49. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Wow! Russian bombers were caught flying near GUAM!!!! 4,000 miles from Hawaii! Yikes! Did Sarah Palin spot them from her house?

  50. Rancid Crabtree says:

    Not sure you’re aware that Guam is a US Territory Knuckle. But then, I guess if John Stewart doesn’t cover it, it can’t be important.

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