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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
Correction at 1100 EST, January 24: This article has been updated to clarify that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has existed since 1945, but the Doomsday Clock has existed since 1947.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, keeper of the infamous Doomsday Clock, delivered an ominous message to the world on Thursday: humanity is now closer than ever to wiping itself out, and at least some of the blame lies with North Korea and its nuclear weapons.
The symbolic clock’s new setting — just 100 seconds left until midnight, the group said — marks the closest the world has come to “doomsday” since the organization was created in 1945 and began assessing the “perils facing mankind” 73 years ago, in the aftermath of World War Two and the dawn of the atomic age.
With harsh words for both U.S. President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un, the Bulletin declared that the two countries’ inability to negotiate a meaningful nuclear deal, and North Korea’s refusal to commit to denuclearization, have helped bring the world to the brink of catastrophe.
“The world is sleepwalking its way through a newly unstable nuclear landscape,” the group, a collection of scientists and policymakers, said in a report published on Tuesday.
“U.S. efforts to reach agreement with North Korea made little progress in 2019, despite an early summit in Hanoi and subsequent working-level meetings,” it said. “After a North Korean deadline for end-of-year progress passed, Kim Jong Un announced he would demonstrate a new ‘strategic weapon’ and indicated that North Korea would forge ahead without sanctions relief.”
“Until now, the willingness of both sides to continue a dialogue was positive, but Chairman Kim seems to have lost faith in President Trump’s willingness to come to an agreement.”
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s new assessment comes as Washington and Pyongyang have been locked in a diplomatic stalemate for months, with neither side appearing willing to budge on any questions related to the nuclear issue.
The U.S. says North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a threat to world peace and must be abandoned. It has imposed sweeping sanctions, in tandem with the UN Security Council (UNSC), as punishment.
Pyongyang says its weapons are a deterrent against the bigger and stronger U.S., and refuses to move toward denuclearization unless Washington ends its so-called “hostile policy” — a vague catch-all that likely includes, at the very least, sanctions relief.
The North conducted at least 15 weapons tests in 2019, but none were of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles that could reach American territory.
The DPRK points to that voluntary moratorium — a hold on the most provocative weapons tests — as a sign of goodwill.
The U.S., for its part, has held back on some joint military exercises with South Korea, which Pyongyang detests.
The Defense Department has called that act a gesture of goodwill from the U.S. to the North, and a senior State Department official said on Wednesday that the administration’s “slow, steady, patient” diplomacy will continue.
But neither side’s goodwill has gone far enough, it seems.
In a year-end speech to senior Workers’ Party leaders, Kim Jong Un said that it may be time for his country’s self-imposed moratorium to end.
“If the U.S. persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula,” Kim said, “and the DPRK will steadily develop necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons for the security of the state, until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK and [a] lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism is built.”
A North Korean diplomat in Geneva repeated the sentiment at a UN arms control conference on Tuesday.
Speaking at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists event on Thursday, Ban Ki-moon, the former UN Secretary-General, called the DPRK’s stance “very very surprising” and “shocking.”
All of these factors weighed on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as it nudged the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand to the right.
In particular, the group blamed Trump and Kim for being unable to come together and actually reach a meaningful, lasting deal, and called out “North Korean and American leaders exchanging childish name calling and not-so-childish nuclear threats.”
It also cited climate change as an urgent crisis that the world must solve.
One expert told NK News that, given the current climate between the U.S. and the North, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s move was expected.
“It is no surprise that the Doomsday Clock is now closer to midnight than it has ever been,” said Alexandra Bell, Senior Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation.
“After various interactions that produced photos and little else, the United States and North Korea have frittered away months and months of valuable time and tensions are again on the rise,” said Bell, who previously served as senior advisor in the State Department’s Office of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she added. “Leaders in Washington and Pyongyang need to get back to the negotiating table and start taking small steps to stabilize the region. Those small steps can lead to a larger deal, but that will take patience and discipline.”
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whether that can happen is a question, simply, of will.
“As we wrote last year and re-emphasize now, any belief that the threat of nuclear war has been vanquished is a mirage,” it said.
But, the group said: “Just as humanity has come perilously close to obliterating itself, it has also experienced moments of exquisite forethought, well-planned efforts to protect the planet accomplished by determined people.”