The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency announced last week it is pursuing a full-scale effort to prepare for a possible North Korean nuclear attack on the state. The agency, part of the state’s Department of Defense, says it will be coordinating more closely with local military authorities as it reshapes its policies.

It’s all a reaction to the buildup of tension between the U.S. and North Korea in recent months.

Although the agency admits the possibility of such an attack is “very unlikely,” its plans include updating Cold War-era civil defense procedures, reviewing old lists of buildings that could potentially be pressed into service as fallout shelters, and launching a public relations campaign to tell the public what to do and where to go if a nuclear missile is heading our way.

Hawaii’s new emergency management plan includes these instructions. Screen shot

Beginning later this year, monthly tests of the state’s emergency warning system will be expanded to include a wailing siren indicating that in a real emergency there would be just minutes to take shelter before the expected flash and blast of an incoming nuclear warhead.

The agency says schools are expected to conduct evacuation drills, although just where students would go isn’t at all clear.

Let’s keep in mind that this isn’t new.

My generation grew up in the shadow of the Cold War nuclear arms race with this same kind of seemingly rational planning for an impossibly irrational conflict. As elementary school students, we learned to duck under our desks, cover our eyes and wait for the sound of the end of the world as we knew it.

As young adults, we were asked to believe building more bombs and more missiles with more deliverable megatons was the way to give peace a chance, and that civil defense, with its system of warnings and shelters, was a key.

Of course, that illusion crumbled as the arms race with the former Soviet Union spiraled out of control, and it became obvious the resulting overkill had itself become the problem, not the solution. Luckily, we managed to live through that period of history without a catastrophic failure or misjudgment on either side.

But here we are once again, treating nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula as an act of nature, like hurricanes or tsunamis, forces out of our control that we just have to deal with as best we can.

Wouldn’t it be much more productive, and more hopeful, to overcome our own fears while building ties with the people of North Korea?

This latest return to the old Cold War playbook has the effect of stoking public fears of North Korea as an irrational country that can’t be dealt with except through shows of force and threats of war, which further escalate the situation.

So what can we do other than repeat the mistakes of the past?

One immediate thing is to challenge the woeful public ignorance about how our foreign and military policy has contributed to and shaped the current hostilities with North Korea. This isn’t the place to try to fill in that huge knowledge gap, but University of Chicago historian Bruce Cummings’ recent article appearing in the London Review of Books (free registration required) is a good place to start. Cummings provides an eye-opening sweep through modern history beginning before World War II and continuing right up to the present.

Second, we have to acknowledge that threatening military action is a dead end, for us and for the people of North Korea and the world. We need to understand that while diplomacy isn’t a perfect answer, and won’t bring immediate miracles, it really is the only ultimate answer.

And we can also challenge the prevailing “threat narrative” by supporting small examples of citizens’ diplomacy that put us in touch with the lives and humanitarian concerns of the North Korean people.

One example is the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee, which has been involved in Korea since 1953, and has maintained contact with and provided humanitarian assistance to North Korea since 1980.

AFSC’s current program in North Korea works with four cooperative farms and two agricultural agencies to share sustainable agricultural practices “through pragmatic approaches that can be field-tested on partner co-op farms.” For example, AFSC has “provided its partners with training in greenhouse management via annual exchange tours to China so that participants may observe Chinese practices in greenhouse cultivation.” These lessons can be applied immediately when the participants return home.

AFSC has also promoted the use of plastic trays for cultivation and transplanting of seedlings, which can boost yields of corn and rice by up to 10 percent. In the 10 years since being introduced, this low-tech system has been adopted nationwide, AFSC reports.

A 30-page ebook published last year, Engaging North Korea, presents more information on these and other people-to-people exchanges, past successes with similar grassroots diplomacy in other countries.

In a second volume published in 2017, the AFSC draws additional policy recommendations based on its 65 years of involvement in Korea.

Four humanitarian issues where progress appears possible are identified.

“Two of these concerns date back to the time of the Korean War and thus represent root causes of long-standing tensions,” AFSC notes, while the other two “represent opportunities to build good will and address humanitarian suffering in the DPRK.”

The four priority issues are the reunification of Korean and Korean-American families, the repatriation of the remains of U.S. personnel killed in the Korean War, people-to-people exchanges, and humanitarian aid projects to meet basic needs of people in North Korea.

These are the kinds of positive initiatives that concerned individuals and organizations in Hawaii could participate in.

Hawaii’s call for nuclear preparedness made headlines across the country last week. Wouldn’t it be much more productive, and more hopeful, to overcome our own fears while building ties with the people of North Korea?

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.