Dr. Ira Helfand is a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and serves as the co-president of the group’s global federation, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
(CNN)Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are due to meet Tuesday in Singapore. President Trump impulsively agreed to the summit, has already canceled once, and has entered into these negotiations without any advance planning or apparent strategy for achieving success.
The summit may well end without major progress towards the elimination of nuclear weapons in Korea. But whatever the outcome, the summit must be seen as an early step in a complicated negotiation, and the diplomatic process must continue. Unfortunately, some in the administration clearly see the summit not as a step towards peace but as a prelude to, possibly even a pretext for, war. National Security Adviser John Bolton has grudgingly welcomed the summit because it will “foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste in negotiations that will never produce the result we want.” In an interview last fall, Bolton argued that “more diplomacy with North Korea, more sanctions … is just giving North Korea more time to increase its nuclear arsenal.” Ghitis: North Korea is testing TrumpSo, what would happen if the United States were to abandon diplomacy and sanctions and instead pursue a military option?The specific war plans of North Korea and the United States are not, of course, publicly available. But everything we know suggests that any military conflict would be a disaster on an epic scale. Read MoreSome 25 million people live in the Seoul metropolitan area, within range of the massive North Korean artillery batteries just north of the border. Casualties in the first days of a conventional artillery attack on Seoul could exceed 100,000, according to some estimates.If nuclear weapons were used, the outcome would be even more catastrophic. A North Korean attack on Seoul involving a single, 20-kiloton weapon could kill about 100,000 people and injure nearly half a million, according to a model by Alex Wellerstein, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. If the North Koreans were able to deliver a 240-kiloton bomb — the strength of the largest weapon they have tested so far — that single bomb could kill more than 600,000 people and injure more than 2 1/2 million.A US nuclear attack on North Korea designed to “guarantee” the elimination of the North’s nuclear and missile programs would probably involve 30 or more weapons set to explode at ground level. The resulting clouds of radioactive fallout would envelop much of North Korea and heavily populated areas of South Korea, killing more than 780,000 people and injuring a million more, the model projects. Photos: The first use of the atomic bomb Photos: The first use of the atomic bombThe United States detonates the world’s first atomic bomb at a test site in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. Less than a month later, atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The devastation led to Japan’s unconditional surrender and brought an end to World War II.Hide Caption 1 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombIn 1939, physicists Albert Einstein, left, and Leo Szilard drafted a letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to research atomic bombs before the Germans could build one first. By 1942, the United States had approved the top-secret Manhattan Project to build a nuclear reactor and assemble an atomic bomb.Hide Caption 2 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombIn 1942, U.S. Army Col. Leslie R. Groves, left, was appointed to head the Manhattan Project. On the right is physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.Hide Caption 3 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombLos Alamos workers pose on a platform stacked with 100 tons of TNT. It was to be used to gauge radioactive fallout. Hide Caption 4 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombThe Manhattan Project also involved research facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington. Billboards, like this one in Oak Ridge, reminded workers of the project’s top-secret nature.Hide Caption 5 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombWorkers in New Mexico attach a bomb to a tower two days before its successful test in July 1945.Hide Caption 6 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombTrinity was the code name of the test bomb, which was detonated in the Jornada del Muerto desert.Hide Caption 7 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombAir Force Col. Paul Tibbetts waves from the pilot’s seat of the Enola Gay moments before takeoff on August 6, 1945. A short time later, the plane’s crew dropped the first atomic bomb in combat, instantly killing 80,000 people in Hiroshima.Hide Caption 8 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombAn aerial photograph of Hiroshima shortly after the atomic bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” was dropped.Hide Caption 9 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombU.S. President Harry Truman, aboard a U.S. Navy cruiser, reads reports of the Hiroshima bombing. Eight days earlier, Truman had warned Japan that the country would be destroyed if it did not surrender unconditionally.Hide Caption 10 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombA white silhouette on a Hiroshima bridge shows an area that wasn’t scorched by the bomb. It was reportedly the outline of a person’s shadow — someone who was shielded from the blast’s heat rays by another person.Hide Caption 11 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombAn elderly victim is covered with flies in a makeshift hospital in Hiroshima.Hide Caption 12 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombA worker stands next to an atomic bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” hours before it was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.Hide Caption 13 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombThis photo was taken about six miles from the scene of the Nagasaki explosion. According to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, photographer Hiromichi Matsuda took this photograph 15 minutes after the attack.Hide Caption 14 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombSurvivors of the Nagasaki bomb walk through the destruction as fire rages in the background.Hide Caption 15 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombA woman and a child walk in Nagasaki on the day of the bombing. More than 70,000 people there were killed instantly.Hide Caption 16 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombMembers of the White House Press Corps rush to telephones after Truman announced Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945.Hide Caption 17 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombAn aerial view of Hiroshima three weeks after the atomic bomb.Hide Caption 18 of 19 Photos: The first use of the atomic bombSoldiers and sailors on the USS Missouri watch as Japan’s formal surrender is signed in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945.Hide Caption 19 of 19With the use of nuclear weapons, we would breach a firewall that the world has worked desperately to maintain since Nagasaki, and we have no idea what lies on the other side. Could such a war be contained? Do the North Koreans have the ability to deliver nuclear weapons to targets in the United States? Would China and Russia be drawn into the fighting? We simply do not know. But we do know that whatever happens at the summit in Singapore, we must make sure that diplomacy is not abandoned because there is no acceptable military solution to this crisis. We must learn from this dangerous situation and act to lessen the danger of nuclear war, both in Korea today and in future crises. The current standoff has drawn attention to a particularly dangerous aspect of US nuclear policy that must be changed. Currently, the president of the United States has the unchecked authority to launch nuclear war. Despite the Constitution’s clear provision that only Congress can declare war, a presidential order to use nuclear weapons does not require congressional, or even cabinet, approval. Congressman Ted Lieu and Sen. Ed Markey, both Democrats, have introduced important legislation to provide a critically needed check by requiring the president to get congressional authorization to initiate the use of nuclear weapons unless the country is under attack. Trump keeps giving Kim the upper handCongress should pass this legislation now. But the United States needs to go further. We need to recognize that the danger posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat to our national security and to the survival of humanity. The United States currently plans to spend some $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years to maintain and enhance its nuclear arsenal. We should instead be working for the security of a world free of these weapons.A large coalition of civic and religious organizations, professional societies, and city and local governments has endorsed a platform of five common-sense policies that the United States should pursue, including the legislation to restrict presidential authority to launch nuclear weapons. “Back from the Brink: A Call to Prevent Nuclear War” also calls on the United States to adopt a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, to take its nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, and to stop the $1.7-trillion plan to enhance every aspect of its nuclear forces. Most importantly, it calls on the United States to pursue negotiations among all nine nuclear weapons states for a verifiable, enforceable, time-bound agreement to eliminate their nuclear weapons.We cannot know if such negotiations will be successful. But we do know what will happen if they fail and nuclear weapons are used: an unprecedented catastrophe.