The relationship between the United States and North Korea took an alarming turn Tuesday, when President Trump threatened the country with "fire and fury" over reports that it may have developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead. In response, North Korea threatened to create an "enveloping fire" around Guam, the U.S. territory that is home to significant American military bases. But what would happen if a nuclear bomb were to actually drop?
While the number of nuclear weapons in the world has significantly dropped since the Cold War — there were as many as 70,300 in 1986 — the total remains high. According to a report by the Federation of American Scientists, as of mid-2017, there are around 14,930 warheads globally. The U.S. and Russia control 93 percent of all nuclear warheads, with the two countries owning approximately 4,000-5,000 each.
The number of nuclear warheads by North Korea remains unknown, but Geoff Wilson, a policy associate at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, says that they estimate North Korea has between 20 and 30 weapons. A conservative estimate of their weapon yields (the amount of energy that is released when it goes off) from previous tests is about 20 kilotons — the same magnitude as the atom bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki during World War II. The largest bomb in the U.S. arsenal is about 1.2 megatons, making it about 60 times more powerful than North Korea's weapon.
Wilson describes the threat of nuclear weapons as nothing short of terrifying. "This is really scary stuff, and this literally affects everybody. A nuclear weapon being launched from anywhere by anyone would drastically change the world," he tells Bustle.
"As soon as one is let off the chain, then nobody knows where it stops," he says. "The fear of these weapons has kept them from being used against each other, so once you've gone beyond deterrents, once the bottom's fallen out from under you, it's impossible to say what happens next."
"They're two very inexperienced, bombastic leaders who are threatening each other with nuclear weapons."
The power of these bombs derives from a sudden release of energy due to the fission of an atom, creating an explosive force. If a 20-kiloton blast — which is what North Korea is capable of — went off in downtown Los Angeles, it would result in an estimated 107,310 fatalities immediately and 152,140 immediate injuries, according to calculations Wilson cited from Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons expert and professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. In the following days and weeks, those figures could double or triple due to radiation poisoning.
However, Wilson adds that this is assuming North Korean missiles are accurate and can hit their targets — which is unlikely. Nonetheless, he stressed that nuclear weapons shouldn't be treated lightly, despite the rhetoric from Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
This is an incredibly cavalier attitude from both leaders. They're two very inexperienced, bombastic leaders who are threatening each other with nuclear weapons — we haven't seen that in a really long time. And, especially from president Trump, that is inexcusable for a leader of the free world, the president of the United States, and the commander of the world's most powerful military to act.
Wilson's advice, especially for young people, is to reach out to Congress and people sitting on the Armed Services Committees in the House and Senate, and relay just how important it is for countries to deal with nuclear weapons diplomatically, for the sake of people across the world.
"[Trump] said 'fire and fury,' and that's scary stuff. Nobody talks likes that, and there are no military solutions to this situation," he says. "It's time for cooler heads to prevail. This is really, really serious, and it should be taken seriously by the president of the United States."