Addressing the generational gap in understanding around nuclear disarmament.
IT SEEMS UNREAL THAT WE ARE FACING THE POSSIBILITY OF WAR between two nations that have nuclear weapons. The threat is so great the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced the Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight. Two minutes to nuclear armageddon.
What seems even more unreal is that while two unpredictable leaders threaten to use nuclear weapons, we also have a Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons open for signatures at the United Nations. Most of the world wants an end to the nuclear weapons era but Canada does not plan to sign the Treaty.
My colleague, Dr Jonathan Down, told me of his fear that we may see war in the next few months. We agreed that we had to do whatever we could to raise the alarm. We began speaking to churches and service clubs together to raise awareness that the threats, insults and provocations between President Trump and President Kim Jong Un are not just hot air but a prelude to war.
When I spoke of my fears to local high school teachers, they asked me to speak to their students about the context of the current threat and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. There is a generational gap in knowledge about nuclear weapons between young people and their parents and grandparents. Those of us who lived through the Cold War remember the existential fear we felt when we learned there were 70,000 nuclear weapons. Public outrage led to meetings between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev and the beginning of major reductions in nuclear arsenals. Today there are “only” 15,000 nuclear weapons, but 1500 of those are held on high alert, ready to be launched on warning.
The reductions are laudable, but research shows that a limited nuclear exchange of fewer than 100 nuclear bombs of the current size would cause millions of tons of radioactive black soot and dirt to go up to the stratosphere where it would linger as a black cloud for years, blotting out the sun and causing sudden catastrophic drops in temperature on the Earth below. This temperature drop would result in widespread crop failures, and some two billion people facing starvation.
As Jonathan and I planned our presentations for students, we remembered how disturbed and frightened we were in the 1980s, when we first came to grips with the threat of nuclear annihilation. What is different now is that the power of ordinary people—civil society—has led to major treaties being passed at the United Nations: landmines, chemical and biological weapons, and cluster bombs have been banned. The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for its work in bringing forward the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons.
Mary-Wynne Ashford speaking with students at Claremont High School
Jonathan and I decided that helping young people overcome the feelings of helplessness brought on by the magnitude of the threat we face, and building bonds between students and adults working together would be our major goal. We teach about the suffering and deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that one bomb is too many. Then we talk about the successes we have had already, and what we can do together right now to prevent a devastating war.
One thing we learned in the Cold War was the power of singing together. Somehow singing “We Shall Overcome” made us feel less alone, less discouraged. We decided to invite singers to join us in our school presentations to offer songs that meant a great deal to us. Students aren’t used to singing together, but gradually they join in singing John Lennon’s “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
We now know that the small things we did during the Cold War made a difference at a high level. Teachers in Victoria sent hundreds of paper lanterns for peace to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but we didn’t know that our actions would be noticed. Gorbachev wrote in his book, Perestroika, that two things affected his thinking about nuclear weapons: his talks with doctors, and the hundreds of thousands of letters he received from children.
Teaching about North Korea is difficult in a climate of fear and provocation, but students must understand the history in order to see alternatives to war and sanctions. The Korean war of 1950-53 ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The original war was to halt the advance of communism through the peninsula, but after the war, the US continued to station 30,000 troops in South Korea and maintain constant pressure to destabilize the dictatorship in the North. Now, 65 years later, there is still no peace treaty, no agreement of mutual nonaggression.
The US and its allies have agreed to extreme sanctions on North Korea in the hopes that Kim Jong Un will give up his nuclear weapons. The other eight countries that already have them say that we must not allow nuclear weapons in the wrong hands, but the truth is, there are no right hands. We have survived at least five incidents that almost triggered a nuclear holocaust by accident. Our luck will not hold forever. All states must eliminate their nuclear weapons.
The sanctions imposed on North Korea are so devastating that UNICEF estimates they will cause the deaths by starvation of 60,000 children. The country depends upon oil to generate electricity. Without oil, they cannot use the pumps or tractors in the rice fields, transport food from farms to cities, run hospitals or cars. The restrictions on humanitarian aid mean that even the Red Cross cannot provide rubber gloves, scalpel blades, sutures, medications, and blankets.
Sanctions are described as if they were nonviolent diplomacy that could be tried first, and if they failed, military action would be justified. In fact, sanctions are a cruel tool of war by other means.
What is needed is dialogue without preconditions between the US and North Korea, trust-building measures between South and North Korea, denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula, and a peace treaty to end the Korean War. The Korean people want peaceful re-unification of the Korean Peninsula, and they have a right to work out the steps needed by themselves. Canada can help by supporting people-to-people exchanges, and ensuring that aid gets through to prevent a tragic humanitarian disaster. And Canada can lead in the abolition of nuclear weapons by signing the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons.
Dr Mary-Wynne Ashford is past co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. In May she will be in North Korea with Women Cross DMZ.