A U.S. nuclear bomb test in 1952, codenamed Operation Ivy, seen from a distance.

A U.S. nuclear bomb test in 1952, codenamed Operation Ivy, seen from a distance. National Nuclear Security Administration

Hawaii’s Renewed Jitters About Nukes

The state is asking the Department of Defense to help it prepare for a nuclear attack, amid escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea.

Memories of the attack have faded, but there are still people in Hawaii who can recall the quiet Sunday morning that descended into chaos more than 75 years ago.

You do not forget the deafening buzz of torpedo bombers, once you have heard them overhead, or what it’s like to see the sky polka-dotted red with the markings of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft. As tensions between the United States and North Korea escalate, these memories are becoming more vivid.

“One of the legacies of the Pearl Harbor attack is that residents of Hawaii feel a stronger sense of vulnerability than people on the United States mainland,” said Denny Roy, a research fellow at the East-West Center who focuses on North Korea and nuclear weapons. “Whenever the mainstream news reprises the issue of North Korea working toward a nuclear [intercontinental ballistic missile] and threatening to use it against the United States, people in Hawaii get nervous.”

Understandably so. North Korea is “steadily getting closer to deploying a working ICBM with a nuclear warhead,” Roy told me. Once they’re successful, a North Korean ballistic missile could reach Hawaii in less than 20 minutes, meaning officials would likely have little time to alert residents.

Also read: 'Missile Defense for Hawaii?' in The Global Business Brief

Now, state lawmakers in Hawaii have formally asked the Department of Defense to help with nuclear disaster preparedness in the state. Such plans haven’t been updated at the local level in decades, since 1985, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. In the early 1980s, Hawaii’s fallout shelters were still stocked with medical kits and food. But those supplies have long since been thrown out, and funding for such shelters evaporated.

Back then, officials had identified hundreds of additional structures, like parking garages, that could serve as makeshift fallout shelters in Hawaii, Governing reported, but officials today don’t even know which of those structures exist anymore—and whether the remaining structures are in adequate shape to serve as shelters.

Hawaii is a natural target for a couple reasons. For one, it’s geographically closer to North Korea than other parts of the United States. Hawaii is also a key strategic position for the U.S. military, which has an enormous presence on the island of Oahu in particular.

Though heightened tensions in Hawaii may be palpable, the people there are used to such flare-ups with North Korea. Even Hawaii’s congressional delegation has remained surprisingly quiet about North Korea in the past week.

“The comparison is, you look at South Korea, where they are almost numb to the threat because they’ve been living under it so long,” said Victor Cha, the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. “I think where you see the most variations in threat perceptions is in Japan, because all the missiles [North Korea has] been firing lately have been fired into Japan’s seas.”

Japan is, of course, uniquely positioned to understand the threat of nuclear weapons. The United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945.

“For them, the fact that it’s a nuclear threat probably hits home more than literally every other country in the world,” Cha told me. “And Japan is unusual in the sense that it’s a legitimate world power that has chosen—precisely because of its history—never to pursue nuclear weapons.”

This approach has been more controversial in recent decades, as North Korea emerged as a real security threat to Japan. “In 1993, when North Korea tested the first Nodong missile, which is the short-range ballistic missile, there was a sea change in Japan,” Cha said. “The security bubble burst, and all of a sudden the Japanese realized they were under severe threat. Those Nodongs are operational now, and there’s hundreds of them targeted on Japan.”

“I would imagine that when the North Koreans successfully test a solid-fuel medium-range ballistic missile that puts Hawaii and Guam fully in range, that might be more of a concern for people there,” he added.

For now, the nuclear threat Hawaii is facing is serious but also still theoretical. North Korea hasn’t explicitly demonstrated that Hawaii is a target the way it has with Japan. But North Korea is clearly trying to show the world what it intends to develop.

“The escalation of tension is real,” Cha said. “And the primary cause of the escalation of tension is North Korea’s testing program. It is designed to achieve and demonstrate a capability where they can reach the United States. There is no doubt about it.”

The U.S. is trying to do something that shows muscularity, unpredictability, and decisiveness. Whether that works? We don’t know yet.

There is uncertainty, however, about how the new presidential administration will react to North Korea. North Korean leadership is perceived as notoriously unpredictable, especially in the Western world. But United States President Donald Trump has his own reputation for being inscrutable and impulsive, qualities which international security experts say he is likely to leverage against North Korea—and as a way to distinguish himself from the Obama administration, which Trump perceives as having been “indecisive and entirely predictable,” Cha said.

“Trump wants to at least signal more muscularity, less predictability, and at the same time decisiveness,” he said. “They want to signal that they will not dilly-dally. So they’re walking this fine line.”

Provocations from North Korea are to be expected by this point. Pyongyang has, in the last eight years, conducted some 75 ballistic missile tests along with a handful of nuclear tests. “Normally, we condemn it, we say it’s a violation of existing resolutions, we call on them to stop, and then we call on the allies to coordinate policy,” Cha said. “It’s very typical. I could write those talking points for any president.”

That’s why, when the Trump administration departed from that playbook earlier this month—when the secretary of state said in a statement that “the United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment”—it garnered so much attention.

“That is not a normal United States reaction,” Cha said. “Part of that is to put a lot of pressure on China, for China to cut off assistance to North Korea. That is why we’ve seen the escalation—because North Korea is continuing on its path and the U.S. is trying to do something that shows muscularity, unpredictability, and decisiveness. Whether that works? We don’t know yet.”

Back in Hawaii, Roy says the threat is real but overblown by a perception that the Kim regime is “crazy,” and by the North Korea’s success in cultivating an image of “extreme bravado.”

“The danger now is that this strategy by the North Koreans could backfire on them,” Roy told me. “Kim is demonstrably not suicidal and we could safely assume he would not use nuclear weapons unless his regime was on the verge of overthrow by an enemy invasion. But because Pyongyang has so effectively communicated its eagerness to use nuclear weapons against the United States—always ‘if’ the United States attacks first, but that little detail is easy to lose sight of—Americans and their political leaders may not be able to tolerate Kim possessing nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, with the ultimate result of shortening the lifespan of the Kim regime.”