As the heated rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korea reaches a boiling point, the chances of Hawaii, with its large military bases, being pulled into the conflict are increasing as well.
From the golf course in New Jersey where he is vacationing, Trump took an aggressive line, pledging during a press conference Tuesday to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if the Asian country continues to make threats toward the United States or other nations.
North Korea responded the same day with an explicit threat, warning it was developing plans to enshroud Guam, home to an important American base in the Pacific, with “enveloping fire” from its medium- and long-range missiles.
Sen. Brian Schatz and many experts believe the risk of an imminent attack on Hawaii is low.
The blistering exchange between Trump and North Korean leaders came three days after the United Nations Security Council unanimously imposed stringent economic sanctions on North Korea that will make it more difficult for the country to finance its nuclear-missile program and will worsen living conditions for the country’s impoverished and starving citizens.
But North Korea’s two successful rocket launches in July proved that the country is able to launch missiles that can reach Hawaii, the West Coast, and “perhaps all of the continental United States,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association.
“The threat is advancing–and quickly,” Reif said. He said that North Korea is very close to mastering “all of the other elements necessary to deliver a nuclear warhead,” including developing compact and lightweight warheads that can survive re-entry, with accurate terminal guidance.
Schatz said in a statement Tuesday that he does not believe there is an immediate risk for the United States at this time.
“North Korea does not yet have the capability to hit any part of the United States with a nuclear ICBM, but their technological improvements are alarming and require a multi-pronged response,” he said. “We must engage in vigorous diplomacy and beef up our missile defenses.”
Schatz called for President Trump to dial down the hot-tempered language directed at North Korean.
“The President’s statement was unwise in both tone and substance,” he said. “There is no diplomatic or military advantage to using such overheated language.”
Whether Hawaii ends up being targeted by North Korean ballistic missiles or not, the state, home to the Pacific Command, would likely serve as an important staging area for American forces in the Pacific in the event of greater hostilities breaking out. Hawaii has played that role in every major conflict since the island nation was annexed by the United States in 1898.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige is “closely monitoring” the situation, according to Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for the governor.
For now, no specific preparations are being made by Hawaii’s National Guard units, according to Lt. Col. Charles J. Anthony, public affairs officer for Hawaii’s Department of Defense.
“We’re aware of and monitoring the geopolitical talk but it’s not affecting what we are doing here,” Anthony said.
He said military forces in Hawaii view the risk of a ballistic missile attack to Hawaii to be “very low,” but that the state rolled out a preparedness campaign last month that gave state residents some guidance on how to respond in the event of a missile attack.
Residents were told to listen for warning sirens, stay away from windows and remain sheltered until they are told it is safe to exit or for 14 days, “whichever comes first,” according to the directive.
If the United States goes to war in the Pacific even via a conventional conflict, Hawaii would be likely to play a role as a staging area for troops and later, a depot for delivering humanitarian relief.
“In any wars that have taken place in the Asia-Pacific, since the Spanish-American war, Hawaii has played a very important strategic role in every conflict,” Anthony said.
“We’re not on the verge of a nuclear exchange, but (the rhetoric) is not helpful. This is the kind of scenario you really worry about, not that somebody would really decide to launch nuclear weapons unprovoked but rather there’s an escalation and both sides fail to accurately predict the reaction of the other side to something they do,” he said.
“Another scary element is what if one side feels trapped, and they are playing to domestic audiences and feel they need to win, or to have the last word, it’s frightening in that sense.”
Roy said that arms experts agree that North Korea’s “nuclear capabilities are increasing, and increasing rapidly.” The only thing that remains under debate is when they will be fully operational and lethal.
He said he believes the risk is in a clash between two hot-headed adversaries if neither will step down. He said that the North Koreans are afraid that the United States or South Korea will topple their regime.
He said North Koreans view the United States as “a very long-term, very hostile adversary, going back to the Korean War,” he added.
Schatz said that he believes that the U.S. military officers in the Pacific area are capable of handling any problems with North Korea.
“We are fortunate to be led in the Pacific by a determined and level-headed Commander, and a distinguished and skilled U.S. Forces Korea General,” he said. “Their on-the-ground knowledge and experience is critical as we forge ahead towards peace.”
Guam Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo issued a statement to residents about what he called North Korea’s “new-found technology that allows them to target Guam.”
A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.