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What Happens If the UK Gets Caught in the Nuclear Crossfire?

As the US and North Korea trade threats, Britain should probably think about where it sits in all this.

by Joe Bish
09 August 2017, 4:01pm

Screenshot: 'Terminator 2'

That's right, friends: yesterday, President Donald J Trump told North Korea in no uncertain terms that if they try any funny business they "will be met with fire and fury". Then, a few hours ago, he tweeted about how America's nuclear arsenal is "now far stronger and more powerful than ever before". This kind of belligerence, of course, gets the old imagination swimming.

We've had a look at what might happen if / when our green and pleasant land gets blown to fuck by submarine-launched warheads, but what if we were merely caught in the crossfire? What's Britain's place in a mad world of war, the third in our history?

We hit up our old friend Emil Dall, Research Fellow of Proliferation and Nuclear Policy at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, to find out.

VICE: Hello again, Emil. Trump is kind of kicking a hornet's nest here, isn't he?
Emil Dall: Tensions on the Korean peninsula are already incredibly tense, and Trump's statement that the US can bring "fire and fury" against North Korea only adds to this fragility. Trump has two options: he either follows through and escalates when North Korea next provokes, or he steps back and risks looking weak both in the eyes of North Korea and to his allies. That is not to say that nuclear war is necessarily imminent, but the fragility of the situation should not be underestimated, and stepping back from such open threats is the best way to diffuse tensions.

What would be the immediate effect on the UK in the event of a nuclear strike by the USA on DPRK?
The UK mainland would not be immediately in any danger, although nuclear exchange anywhere in the world presents a grave threat to international peace and security as a whole. In theory, if the US decides to launch a nuclear strike against North Korea – which is still unlikely! – the international community will not be given much warning. You need a certain element of surprise in order to be able to take out as many North Korean military assets as possible. So the UK would not be involved in any planning or carrying out of that mission, although as a close ally to the United States, Number 10 will be kept closely informed in the minutes, hours and days following a strike.

What kind of economic fallout would we experience if a strike was to hit, say, New York?
Any large-scale, destructive attack – whether nuclear or not – on a major financial centre will always have a huge effect on the global economy. Think 9/11, plus more.

What is the likely British response to such an action?
Any large-scale action against North Korea would, most probably, not have the endorsement of the Security Council, but as a close US ally the UK will need to have an opinion on it, and express it publicly. The UK itself has nuclear weapons in the event that the very survival of the state is threatened, and it could be assumed that the government may endorse US use of nuclear weapons on those grounds too.

Would the UK become belligerent in potential nuclear war, or more likely to keep to itself?
Whether or not the UK would go further than this is unclear. It's unlikely that the UK would support the US as fully as it did in 2003 in the Iraq War, given the opposition in Parliament since then to get involved in large-scale war abroad. Western responses to the North Korean crisis have always been driven by the US, and this will not change.

Is there a risk of fallout from multiple nuclear strikes across the globe affecting the health of British citizens? How far would the radiation spread?
Determining nuclear fallout depends on the type, size and number of nuclear strikes – as well as the weather conditions. The Chernobyl accident, for example, resulted in increased radiation levels in most of Europe.

So how likely is this all to happen? I feel, personally: fairly unlikely.
Nuclear war is not imminent. Total panic and WWIII is not on the cards. But we should also not take the risk lightly, and the situation is not stable if current rhetoric and threats continue. Both North Korea and the US understand the risks of nuclear war, and want to avoid this. North Korea, for its part, also understands that full-scale war with the US could lead to its defeat. In order to diffuse the situation, it is vital that both sides lower their rhetoric and open channels of communication.

Thanks, Emil.

@joe_bish

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