Last Friday the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency began testing a nuclear attack siren that is intended to warn people: They have 15 minutes before a missile will destroy them.

This siren is a relic of the Cold War, and as it did then, it is supposed to function now by simultaneously assaulting our senses and conditioning our sense of fear.

We fear apocalypse. We fear our nuclear annihilation. We fear for the safety of our families, our homes, and our businesses. We fear for what we have because we have so much to lose.

A warning siren at Ala Moana Park. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

This rhetoric of will they, won’t they, when they attack gives the United States purchase in the world as a military power. Shinzo Abe wants to bolster Japan’s military and revise its country’s longstanding pacifist constitution, which ironically was itself enacted by U.S. occupiers in 1947.

South Korea continues to buy into this logic of fear and protection by agreeing to purchase U.S. weapons, which falls into a broader scheme: conscripting all male citizens into the ROK military for two years, conducting annual war exercises, permitting the U.S. militarization of South Korea and the installation of the THAAD missile defense system, and lastly, accepting the DMZ, another relic of the Cold War, as fact.

Simply put, the DMZ is meant to guard South Korea. As a self-defense measure, it is also a symbolic operation of estrangement and alienation. In this way, the DMZ is a fiction that makes the U.S. its protagonist. Our hero protects us from danger, reminding us that we fear “them” because they are not “us.”

Understanding The Threat

The theme of this old story argues that South Korea is modern, democratic and free, while North Korea is the backward, negative image of the beautiful, redeemed and better Korea. This fiction has us believe that South Korea is the good Korea.

On Oct. 12 Honolulu Civil Beat hosted a panel at the University of Hawaii Manoa titled “Understanding The Threat of North Korea and What It Means for Hawaii.” Fear is a powerful emotion and response. However, fear is not only reactionary but works primarily in the preemptive. It reminds us of our threats, and it helps the U.S. conceive of its enemies — in fact, look for them, profile them, exclude them or kill them.

North Korea has always been willing to negotiate a denuclearization program, but President Trump would rather exercise U.S. military strength. North Korea wants the U.S. and South Korea to demilitarize, but the U.S. won’t budge. North Korea doesn’t want the destruction of its people, and yet the U.S. threatens fire and fury.

Rim of the Pacific exercise vessels at Pearl Harbor in August. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Threats are met with threats because this is how these two countries have been talking for decades. Fear is its own justification of policing our borders and nation, sustaining our borders elsewhere, and even building them. In this way, fear is very profitable to the U.S. because the military is its biggest industry.

A panelist suggested that the threat of an attack would negatively affect tourism in Hawaii. Another panelist suggested that someone should create a “Hawaii Five-0” type show about South Korea that can then get smuggled into the north to show them how great everything is and how much better life is there.

This is why fear is even more powerful when it goes hand in hand with forgetting. Three-million Koreans died in the Korean War. Korean people fought against one another because Korea became a stage for the Cold War conflict between U.S. and Soviet occupation and indoctrination. We fear North Korea today, and yet we forget that the U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on the northern peninsula.

Someone organizing must have forgotten, because absent from this panel were actual Korean voices, which could have represented our people’s resistance to the U.S. military and our stories of our families that are separated because of the peninsula’s division — how we cannot perform jesa (remembering ancestors), feed and pay respect to our ancestors in the north.

Instead, the panel, news coverage and the warning siren all remind us to be fearful for general humanity in the future. According to the U.S., to be generally human means to be entitled to a job, property, a family, leisure and retirement. This is what freedom affords you. This is what we are afraid of losing.

The Fiction Of Opportunity

It is another fiction that we all have the same opportunities and privileges, which in the U.S. is largely based on where your family came from and what you look like. We forget the way freedom, and by extension, humanity is denied to nonwhite people when the U.S. is both expert and executor in dehumanizing and destroying indigenous people and people of color.

As a Korean in Hawaii, I embrace the term “settler” and all of its complexities and perceived misgivings because it centers the genealogical relationship Hawaiians have with the land. We forget how our privileges mean that what we have is always predicated on the expense of what someone else has lost.

Koreans have a relational history to Hawaiians. We have been colonized. We have been occupied by churches and the U.S. I don’t bring this up to suggest that our respective oppressions are equated or at all similar.

When you hear the nuclear attack siren, remember how military bases displace people from their ancestral lands and prevent them from returning to them.

Instead, I want to emphasize that it is my responsibility as a settler of color to remember how we must not forget who does all the taking. We should not fear for our own safety, but for the U.S. capacity of military violence that operates around its bases and throughout the Pacific.

To be afraid of nuclear attack in Hawaii is to confide in the state and the disproportionate strength of the U.S. military. To be fearful of your own safety in Hawaii because of your fear of North Korea is to not only dehumanize North Korean people in your mind, but to forget the erasure and eradication of Native Hawaiian people. A lot of folks talk about leaving Hawaii or wishing they were elsewhere, and this is just irresponsible. It is one of the greatest ironies that settlers in Hawaii fear elimination.

When you hear the nuclear attack siren, remember how military bases displace people from their ancestral lands and prevent them from returning to them. When you hear the siren, remember that sexual assault and gendered violence increases around bases.

When you hear the siren, remember that the military benefits from the very people they displace with high rates of enlistment from Pacific Islanders. When you hear the siren, remember how the military occupies Guam, Okinawa, South Korea and Hawaii. When you hear the siren, remember that the military pollutes their lands and waters.

Moving Through History

Instead of fearing for our own lives, we must remember how the U.S. military is a destructive force and how it conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. We must remember that the U.S. wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on the northern Korean peninsula during the war.

We must hold the U.S. accountable for the deaths that many Marshallese people continue to suffer because of cancer and exposure to radiation. We must remember the bombing of Kahoolawe and resist the continued missile testing on Kauai, which is justified as a means to protect Hawaii from North Korea.

Guam Andersen Air Force Base B52 B1 bombers. 23 aug 2016
The U.S. military dominance of the Pacific extends to Guam, where B-52 and B-1 bombers can be seen at Andersen Air Force Base. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Fear is most successful when it can immobilize. It is no wonder that the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea are always at a standstill and being watchful, wary of who might make a move. U.S. military security and peace do not mean the same thing. Security does not ensure peace nor maintain it. Rather, it constantly defers peace and anticipates violence.

Through remembering, we resist fear and move through history. It is my hope that somewhere along that path of remembering that we find a capacity for radical compassion. The nuclear annihilation that always breaks out in our imagining of the future only serves to secure a militarized present, despite the annihilations that made this present possible.

By moving through history and exercising compassion not for ourselves and what we may lose, we can then imagine what we may gain through fierce solidarity. Rather than be alarmed, through our own struggles, calls, and demands for peace instead of security — instead of a militarized Guam, Okinawa, South Korea and Hawaii — we can make a just future for all possible.

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About the Author

  • Joseph Han
    Joseph Han was born in Seoul, South Korea and immigrated to Hawaii. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he teaches creative writing and composition. His father’s side of the family is originally from the northern peninsula of Korea, while his grand-aunt remains separated from her sisters, who may still be living, in what is now known as North Korea.