This week I have been having a lively discussion with my very distinguished friend of many years, John Polanyi, winner of a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1986, one of Canada’s most respected and sociable academics, and a frequent commentator on arms control and nuclear proliferation issues, about current scenarios with North Korea. This arose when I was invited to give a brief talk to a small dinner group where John and I are both members, that meets from time to time at one of the colleges of the University of Toronto. I responded to John’s question that I thought the most likely outcome of the present impasse was that North Korea, having successfully cheated three consecutive American administrations and got to the threshold of having a deliverable nuclear weapon, would stonewall to the end, and either call what they might consider to be America’s bluff, on past form, or try to slide into an Iran-like arrangement: a nuclear military capability on the instalment plan. And I thought that this U.S. administration was not bluffing and that President Trump made it clear on Tuesday at the United Nations that the U.S. would not make another Iran-style agreement, would not allow the existing agreement with that country to enable Iran to become a nuclear military power, and would not tolerate North Korea becoming one either.
A discussion involving some other interveners followed in which Polanyi made the point that each new nuclear military power after the United States — the U.S.S.R., the U.K., France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and South Africa (which renounced nuclear weapons after the accession to government of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress) — was simply admitted to the slowly expanding group of nuclear powers, and all have proved responsible in nuclear military matters. He focused on Stalin and Mao Tse-tung as illustrative of people who were egomaniacal, belligerent totalitarians, yet had not misused nuclear military capability. Stalin was, in fact, quite cautious about going to war, and only initiated hostilities in one limited (though outrageous) incursion in Finland when most of the rest of Europe was already at war in 1939. Chou En-lai confirmed to Richard Nixon in 1972 that Stalin had not lifted a finger to help China in the Korean War. And Mao made absurd comments about China’s immense population enabling it to endure a nuclear war before China had such a military capability, but not afterward. I thought Pakistan, given its political instability and patronage of some terrorist groups, was a greater danger, but so far, so good.