MUNOZ: The North Korean Threat, A Multi-Generational Perspective


It was a typical day in Hawaii. A little boy, around ten years old, was playing football in the streets – touch-tackle to be exact. But then bombs fell from the sky, and lit up the harbor in the distance. The boy could see planes in the air, going up and down, shooting and dropping bombs on the ships down below.

The year was 1941.

That was a story I remember hearing about what my grandfather experienced on December 7, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Imperial Japanese military. My grandmother, who was 9 or 10 at the time, remembered coming home from her sister’s house and just seeing “all this black smoke.”

This past December was the 75th anniversary of the infamous bombing, but Hawaii is once again bracing for an attack from an Asian adversary. This time it’s North Korea. And for families like my own, it may feel like history is beginning to repeat itself.

On July 4th North Korea launched a successful missile test of what was determined to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). With a standard trajectory, projected to be 4,160 miles, it appears that North Korea may currently have the ability to hit Alaska and Hawaii, according to a report from the New York Times.

Only a few weeks later, on July 28th, North Korea launched another ICBM. David Wright, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimated that several US cities, as far as Denver and Chicago, might be in range. Experts are estimating that, now that North Korea has passed the ICBM threshold, it will be “nuclear-capable” by 2018.

SFS Professor, Matthew Kroenig, weighed in on the threat from North Korea. He explained that “the really hard part [of having a missile program] is doing it at all,” which is why the Koreans have been able to rapidly improve their missiles performances.

Kroenig noted that many experts suspect that North Korea might already have the ability to make nuclear warheads small enough to fit on an ICBM. However, he believes that they still need to create a nose-cone that is stable and resistant enough to survive a launch.

In his opinion, there are two strategies the US could employ to prepare for a nuclear North Korea. One, to deter, would be to amp up the diplomatic pressure on the country, especially from China. However he noted while disarming North Korea would be beneficial for both the US and China, it is not a high priority for the latter.

“On one hand I do think an attack is unlikely,” Kroenig said in regards to whether or not residents of the island should be concerned about an attack, “On the other hand, the chance isn’t zero.”

With mere months before a nuclear-North Korea possibly becomes a reality, Hawaii has become the first state to announce a nuclear preparedness plan.

This is not the first time Hawaii had to prepare for the worst.

During WWII, even before the bombs fell into the harbor, island residents were on high alert. Like in other parts of the country, families had to practice blackouts, rationing, and drills. My grandmother remembered having to pack a gas mask along with her books for school. She told me about being required to wear I.D. bracelets everywhere.

That night, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, everyone was told to blacken their windows. My grandmother remembered her brother painting their windows black, to block out the light. That was something her mother never changed back, even after the war.

During the Cold War, Hawaii was once again a target. My aunt, who was in the third grade at the time, recounted practicing air raid drills, pushing together desks and sheltering in the dark, sometimes three times a week at Pearl City elementary. She told me about watching the troops drive on Kamehameha Highway, while the elementary kids clung to the fence in fear.

She explained that she was told, “we had to practice much more often than other places because of all the ships.”

Hawaii was initially declared a target by North Korea back in 2013. I was in high school at the time, and remember talking about it in history and government classes. While it was scary at the time to know there was a target on our backs, the state did nothing to legitimize the threats. There was no need for a preparedness plan, so everyone quickly stopped worrying and moved on to midterms.  

Now the state of Hawaii finds itself issuing preparedness guidelines not only for hurricanes and box jellyfish infestations, but nuclear war. With 4,661 miles separating the islands from North Korea, the official estimate is that the missile would arrive in 20 minutes, giving the state only 15 minutes maximum to warn the populace.

While the state is not under high alert like it was during WWII and the Cold War, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has already begun to roll out its public information campaign, which will include school drills.

As of now, the plan advises the public that when the sirens blare, emergency alert systems go off, or a “brilliant white light is observed” to “Get inside. Stay inside. Stay Tuned.” People should run inside the nearest “preferably concrete” building, or “lie flat on the ground” if stuck outside, and be prepared to remain in shelters for 14 days.

The infographic notes that there are “no designated blast or fallout shelters in Hawaii.”

Seen by many as just another island paradise, Hawaii is a major military outpost for the U.S. in the Pacific. Hawaii has 65,273 total military personnel, 37,383 of which are active duty. There are 20 bases – across all three branches of the military – in the state, 15 of which are located on Oahu, where Pearl Harbor is located. It resides in a strategic location in the Pacific, only approximately 4000-5000 miles away from its closest allies, South Korea and Japan.

According to an article from Civil Beat, posted on the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s website, Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, was quoted explaining that, “Nuclear [war] would wipe out all life on Oahu. It would Hiroshima times 10.”

However, ultimately the chance of a nuclear strike on the island from North Korea is highly unlikely. Governor David Ige stressed that point repeatedly during his Facebook Live town hall, and the public information campaign does the same.

It would be strategical suicide for North Korea to blatantly attack the U.S. directly.  It would put its two allies, Russia and China, in an awkward predicament, but moreover, it would finally give the U.S. and its allies the legal justification to attack, invade, and neutralize North Korea’s nuclear system.

There is a lot still developing, and therefore uncertain, about this situation. Experts will continue to analyze, generals will continue to strategize, politicians will continue to organize, but what I take away from this situation is on a much more personal note.

I have five generations of family in these islands. To me, it is mind blowing that what my great-grandparents’, grandparents’, and parents’ generations lived through is something my cousins and their children are going to start preparing for too.