North Korea’s UN ambassador for American affairs, his aide, and the two of us sat around a small circular table at the Mennonite office in New York. Our book on the medical consequences of nuclear war, with its cover picture of a devastated Hiroshima, sat between us. The United Nations building loomed in the background, and the East River beyond it.
We discussed what would happen if a single nuclear bomb exploded over our location in Manhattan: a massive blast and firestorm engulfing most of the city, the crush, the fire, the radiation injuries that would afflict hundreds of thousands, the destruction of the hospitals and deaths of healthcare workers. We looked toward Brooklyn, which would be hit with a pilgrimage of tens of thousands of dying and injured struggling to escape Manhattan, quickly overwhelming medical supplies and facilities. We noted that attempts to shelter underground in New York City’s subway system would lead to deaths by asphyxiation and cremation.
Our path to this conversation started 35 years ago with the work of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the organization for which we were awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. Sitting around this small table more than 30 years later, the goal of the four of us was to help decrease the risk of nuclear war between the US and North Korea—a challenge demonstrating the permanent problem nuclear weapons create for humanity.
On June 12, US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will hold a summit meeting in Singapore. Trump has said “We will both try to make it a very special moment for world peace.” All of humanity should wish for their success. Peace between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would be a great achievement welcomed by all. But it would be just one step in resolving the larger nuclear dilemma—the spread of nuclear weapons across nine countries, the desire of terrorists to obtain such weapons, and the possibility that one or more of the world’s existing 16,000 nuclear weapons will be launched in error.
As dangerous as the US-DPRK nuclear confrontation is, it is just another flare from the 70 years of risk created by the development of nuclear weapons. Their continued possession by the world’s powers has bred proliferation with a dangerous increase in the number of nuclear-armed nations. The advancement of technologies such as computer prototyping and 3D printing also facilitates proliferation by making the nukes easier to produce. The increase in the number of small nations with nuclear weapons in turn decreases the security of larger nations. Nuclear weapons are a great equalizer: Nukes permit smaller nations—or nebulous terrorist groups—to threaten a great power such as the United States, China, or Russia. They make the weak, rogue states equal to the great powers.
Despite biologic and chemical weapons of mass destruction being outlawed, nuclear weapons are still legal. In 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an organization borne out of the IPPNW, for its proposal to abolish nuclear weapons.
There is therefore only one long-term global solution: total nuclear disarmament. The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula could be a first step toward that goal.
Over the past four months, we have discussed these points with the North Korean ambassador. Although the United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, Americans can speak with DPRK officials through their mission to the United Nations—a path called the “New York channel.” With the assistance of Doug Hostetter, director of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) United Nations office, which has assisted with humanitarian aid for the DPRK for over two decades, we were able to plead our case.
We first met with the DPRK ambassador and his aide in late 2017, two days before Christmas. It was a dark moment in a dark political climate, shared at the darkest time of year: the day of the winter solstice. The conversation quickly turned to the historic roots of the confrontation. The ambassador stated that the DPRK had developed nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack by the United States, which he noted was the only nation to have used nuclear weapons. To our surprise, he said that North Korea seeks a nuclear-free world.
We responded that the US, which is a signatory of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), also seeks a world free of nuclear weapons. Because of a 50-year delay in nuclear disarmament by the US and other nuclear nations, a new treaty with time limits was recently introduced by ICAN. The new treaty was supported by 123 members of the UN—but opposed by all nuclear armed nations.
This was the first of many visits between us. In a later meeting, we reviewed a tape of our 1982 TV broadcast to over 100 million people in Russia, in which we showed pictures of the wounded in Hiroshima and criticized funds being spent on weapons instead of hospitals.
We concluded a third meeting with a video showing South Korean musicians and African-American singers performing a round of Arirang (a traditional favorite song of North and South Koreans) combined with Amazing Grace.
The ambassador hoped that we might visit Pyongyang for a medical conference and begin cooperative medical work with DPRK colleagues. (We have now received and accepted an official invitation for a delegation of five Harvard-affiliated physicians to visit Pyongyang Medical College later this year.)
In 2017, the US-North Korea standoff brought the hidden danger of nuclear weapons back out of the shadows. North Korea exploded weapons and launched intercontinental missiles. Trump threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Kim said that “the entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons. The button is always on my desk.” Trump stated that he had a bigger button. The nuclear threat to humanity, ever-present since Hiroshima but only intermittently visible, suddenly recaptured the attention it deserves.
The current escalating nuclear danger reminds us of a similar time of peril. In 1980, the United States and the Soviet Union spoke of fighting and winning a nuclear war with their 60,000 nuclear weapons. As physicians, we joined with Russian colleagues to publicize the medical facts demonstrating that there will be no winners in a nuclear war. For these efforts, the IPPNW was awarded its Nobel. Thirty-two years later, we hoped that a focus on the human consequences of the use of nuclear weapons could again be instructive for world leaders.
The public needs to stay informed to help governments abandon a nuclear mindset and move toward safety; in particular, the young need to add their energy and idealism in this struggle for the future of humanity.
The nuclear threat had been hidden from millennials, who came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union. But now that they have been alerted to the North Korean crisis, their eyes have been opened. With the problem once again clearly visible, it is our hope that today’s youth will advocate outlawing nuclear weapons. They are the flagbearers of the future, and they are the ones who will increase the chances for our survival and that of all generations.
At the dawn of the nuclear age, Albert Einstein stated that the world will require a new way of thinking if it is to survive. In the 70 years since, we have experienced multiple technical mistakes and nuclear crises. On the current course, these crises will continue, and if governments don’t act, sooner or later, our luck will run out. An informed citizenry can help the nuclear-armed nations change course—and ensure a future for humanity.
Dr. James Muller was a co-founder and Dr. John Pastore was the executive secretary of the Nobel prize-winning International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Pastore has visited North Korea twice for medical work, and Muller has recently met with diplomats at the DPRK UN mission to discuss possible future cooperation with North Korean physicians in the fields of cardiology and prevention of nuclear war.
This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.