On Jan. 26, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whose board of sponsors I chair, reset its Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes, 30 seconds to midnight, the closest it has been to midnight in more than 60 years. At the time, two of the factors we mentioned in making our decision were the ominous developments in North Korea, and the frivolous and dangerous language the new American president had employed before his inauguration regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear war.
Many observers have wondered whether the events of the past weeks mean that we are even closer to Armageddon than the bulletin envisaged just seven months ago. We decide whether to move the hands of the clock at designated, annual intervals. At this point, things aren’t looking good for the next assessment, in November. North Korea’s latest batch of intercontinental ballistic missiles appears to have the capability of reaching the United States, and the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence believes Pyongyang has managed to miniaturize its nuclear warheads to fit in the nose of those ICBMs.
This is still a far cry from having true nuclear weapons capability. It’s likely the North hasn’t met the technical challenge of managing the massive amounts of heat generated when a ballistic missile re-enters Earth’s atmosphere headed for its target. Still, Kim Jong Un’s military has moved far faster and further in ICBM and nuclear weapons development than many had predicted even a year ago.
In response to these developments, Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” statements are, as usual with the president, murky at best. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly tried to dial back the tension by saying Trump’s extemporaneous comments were primarily rhetorical. The secretary of Defense, James Mattis, on the other hand, issued his own ominous statement that the North should “cease any considerations of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and…