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The Breach: How Likely Is World War III?

Lindsay E. Beyerstein

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It is sometimes said—even by Republican lawmakers—that President Donald Trump’s erratic decisions and aggressive rhetoric could put us on the path to World War III. But how possible is such a war, and what exactly could happen to cause it? Host Lindsay Beyerstein and security journalist Ankit Panda discuss North Korea, Trump’s complicated relationship with the Iran deal, and more.

Recommended Reading:

What if the right-wing media wins? by McKay Coppins for Columbia Journalism Review, October 2017

An edited excerpt:

Lindsay: Can you elaborate on why it is that leaders such as Kim [Jong-un], who are really all about regime survival, have such itchy trigger fingers, and why it’s so risky for Trump to be openly baiting him like he does on Twitter?

Ankit: Sure. Part of it is that North Korea has a fairly limited and small nuclear arsenal for now. We think they have about enough fissile material, which is the plutonium and highly enriched uranium necessary to create bombs. We think they have enough of that for 60 bombs.

If you’re Kim Jong-un and you know that every single day you’re vulnerable to a decapitation strike, you’re vulnerable to conventional defeat by preemption from the United States and South Korea, you’re going to be watching for signs that an attack is coming because your only way to survive, the only rational way you can behave in that situation, is to use your nuclear weapons first. That’s the only way where there’s a possible scenario—even a probability greater than zero—that you make it out of that alive.

That’s why it’s so dangerous for Trump to be threatening North Korea with total destruction, creating these really confusing hints. I mean, ambiguity can be a feature, not a bug, for deterrence, but confusion is definitely the enemy of deterrence. Confusion does not help the United States deter with Korea today, and there is a lot of confusion.

Transcript (PDF)