North Korea


Nagasaki Bomb. By Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nukemap is a website that allows you detonate a virtual atomic weapon over the city of your choice. You can select the size of the bomb either by kiloton, or by presets. I first chose the a nuclear weapon tested by North Korea in 2013, and tested it as a surface burst over my much-loved city of Portland. The results were horrific: an estimated 32,230 fatalities and 41,500 injuries. When I tested the same blast over Manhattan there were 103,000 fatalities and 213, 430 injuries. In each case the map generates a series of concentric circles that illustrated the impacts from radiation, fireball, air blast, thermal radiation, etc. The website also models the radiation plume, which trails far off into the distance on the map.

This website can take you to a very dark place. I made the mistake of modeling the largest bomb that the USSR ever tested, and what would happen if it detonated over Portland, Oregon. The largest circle was for the thermal radiation, and indicated the areas in which people would receive third degree burns. This circle stretched for 60 kilometers or 11,300 km2. One end of circle passed Yale, Washington in the north, while Silverton, Oregon was on the the south edge of the circle. For this particular example, there were 1,241,130 estimated fatalities, and 574,390 injuries. So people were much more likely to be killed than injured. When I then tested the same blast over New York City, the same blast caused 7,633,390 fatalities and 4,194,990 injuries. At that point I stopped using the site.

This website is both bleak and fascinating, and might be a useful tool during a classroom discussion of nuclear proliferation, and the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. The day that I visited the website in November 2017 over 130 million detonations already had taken place on the site.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Smallpox and North Korea

A patient being inoculated against smallpox in 1802, in a satirical cartoon. James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Biological weapons are both terrifying and elusive. On the one hand, the Soviet Union made long-term investments in bioweapons research during the Cold War, as Ken Alibek’s tell-all book Biohazard makes clear. On the other hand, these diseases have proved difficult to weaponize, and the problem of blowback has made them unlikely to be used by any state. Despite the allegations that Iraq was weaponizing diseases under Saddam Hussein, no large-scale biological weapons program was discovered after the U.S. and British invasion. Now there are new allegations being made about North Korea.

Given that North Korea’s leader had his own brother murdered, and is moving forward rapidly to expand the range of his nuclear weapons, it’s not difficult to imagine that he might be fascinated with biological weaponry. But is there any solid evidence for a North Korean program? Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons development can take place on a constrained budget and without difficult procurement or testing issues. As such, these programs are hard to detect. Nonetheless, Joby Warrick has an article in the Washing Post that points out that in 2015 the North Korean leader had his photograph taken in a facility “jammed with expensive equipment, including industrial-scale fermenters used for growing bulk quantities of live microbes, and large dryers designed to turn billions of bacterial spores into a fine powder for easy dispersal.” Perhaps even more disturbing, North Korean soldiers who have defected have allegedly had antibodies to smallpox, although these defectors mostly escaped decades ago.

Warrick’s article is worth reading in depth. How do we judge such a threat? On the one hand, were a virus such as smallpox ever released it would be truly a global catastrophe. On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge no state has used biological weapons since World War Two. Since that time, however, many Cassandras have warned that enemies were developing biological weapons. The United States has a long history of allegations against enemies that lead to war, only to be discredited afterwards, The U.S. warship Maine was quite possibly sunk by a coal fire, not the Spanish, but its explosion was used to justify the Spanish-American war. It’s unlikely that any North Vietnamese forces were even present on August 4, 1964 for the alleged second Gulf of Tonkin incident. The first incident led to a single bullet hole in a U.S. vessel. Nonetheless, these “events” were manipulated to form the basis for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the U.S. Congress. In turn, President Johnson then used Congress’s authorization to massively expand the U.S. war in Vietnam. As it turns out, the U.S. intelligence services had completely misread the situation in that nation. The Bush administration alleged that Saddam Hussein was creating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but none were found after the U.S.-British invasion. If we included smaller conflicts -such as the contra war, which was based on a myriad of allegations against Nicaragua in the 1980s- this list of false or questionable justifications for war would become lengthy. Given this background, how seriously should we fear this new potential threat?

Sadly, biological weapons programs are by their nature easy to conceal, and difficult to evaluate. As a result, this is one potential nightmare associated with North Korea that is profoundly difficult to place in a broader context. We simply don’t have sufficient information yet to know the true scale of the danger.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Murder and Mystery in Malaysia

I’ve always been interested in international mysteries, and I’ve covered many of them in this blog, such as the strange death of Natalio Alberto Nisman in Argentina; the authorship of the Stuxnet virus; the nature of Number Stations; the massacre in Coahuila; the disappearance of Malaysia Flight 370Cicada 3301chronic kidney disease in Central America; lost nuclear weapons in Canada; the death of Walter Benjamin; the hijacking of the Arctic Sea; the Vela Incident; the lost island of Bermeja; the attack on a South African nuclear site; and the strange case of Witches Broom and bioterrorism in Brazil. This last blog post on Brazil received more attention than any other blog post on mystery, and certainly the most feedback from readers. …

Cracking the North Korea Puzzle

I want to thank Dr. Mel Gurtov for the following guest post:

Donald Trump inherits an intractable problem in Asia: North Korea’s determination to modernize its weapons arsenal and, absent a better deal from the United States, continue working toward an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. The North’s latest missile test—one with intermediate range of perhaps 2,000 miles—should be understood in the context of weapons modernization. According to the US Pentagon, the test represented progress for North Korea in several respects: it was a ground-based launch rather than a submarine launch; it used solid fuel technology; and it flew farther than other IRBM tests, the four most recent ones having all failed at launching.

Over the past year, North Korea has carried out over 25 ballistic missile tests and conducted its fifth nuclear-weapon test as well. All these tests are in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that ban and condemn them. Each resolution has led to harsher sanctions, but sanctions have had little if any effect on Pyongyang’s behavior or rhetoric. Even China’s criticisms, which have grown more severe in recent years, have not moved North Korea to change course. …

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