WASHINGTON — There’s no doubt about it, the handshake between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump was historic.

So, too, was the one-and-a-half page agreement they signed to move toward denuclearizing the reclusive country, although it’s short on details.

But that doesn’t mean officials here are any less inclined to invest in missile defense capabilities that protect Hawaii, a place once considered an easy target for Kim’s regime.

A false alert in January put thousands of Hawaii residents on edge when they thought a ballistic missile was headed their way.

Tensions with North Korea were high at the time. The false alarm came not long after Trump promised “fire and fury” if North Korea continued to threaten the U.S.

SBX missile defense domed platform rests in Pearl Harbor as a USS Arizona Memorial ferry heads thru Pearl Harbor near the Ford Island bridge. 7 dec 2014. photograph Cory Lum

The “giant golf ball” at Pearl Harbor is one component of the U.S. missile defense apparatus.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s congressional delegation teamed up on legislation to make sure similar mistakes would not be made again.

They also worked behind the scenes in an attempt to secure funding and make sure the U.S. was prepared to warn the populace in the event of a real attack.

Last week, Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz announced he’d signed on to bipartisan legislation that would bolster the nation’s ability to detect and destroy incoming missiles, including from space.

The bill, sponsored by Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, was supported by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Gary Peters, a Democrat, and Republicans Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton.

The legislation is similar to bills introduced in 2017 in both the House and Senate that were backed by Schatz and the other three members of Hawaii’s delegation.

“When it comes to North Korea, we can hope for the best while still planning for the worst,” Schatz said in a statement about Sullivan’s bill. “I strongly support diplomacy, but in the meantime, this bill beefs up our missile defense system and protects Hawaii, Alaska, and the U.S. mainland from rogue missile threats.”

On Tuesday, the senator took to Twitter to blast Trump for his concessions during the Singapore summit, which included a promise by the president to end the U.S.’s “provocative” joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for Kim’s promise to denuclearize.

In one tweet, Schatz said it appeared that Trump had created a “true friendship with one of the cruelest despots on the planet.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono was equally as skeptical after the summit. In an interview with Civil Beat on Tuesday, Hirono said there are too many unknowns to effectively gauge the deal.

She also criticized Trump for making a “unilateral” decision about the joint military actions with South Korea — which the president described as expensive “war games” — without consulting the country’s leaders.

“What we’re all looking for is a denuclearized North Korea, which includes verification,” Hirono said.

In the meantime, she said, the military will continue to invest in Hawaii to protect the state and the country, for instance, by building a new discrimination radar in the state that will help the U.S. track and shoot down incoming missiles.

The summit, she added, seemed to be a one-sided deal that favored Kim. She said Trump not only legitimized Kim’s regime by meeting with him, but he also seemed to err by using highly charged words, like “provocative,” when discussing South Korea.

“That must have made Kim Jong Un very happy, but I’m sure it caused concern for the South Koreans,” Hirono said. “This needs to be more than just a photo opp for Kim Jong Un. There’s hard work that lies ahead.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono worried that President Donald Trump gave up too much to North Korea.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

When the meeting was first announced in March, Dan Leaf, a retired lieutenant general and former deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Command (now called the Indo-Pacific Command), went to his refrigerator and opened a bottle of champagne.

Leaf, who lives in Hawaii, is an expert on North Korea. In 2017, he won the Oslo Forum Peacewriter Prize for an essay on how to solve one of the most “complex, vexing and important” security challenges the world was facing at the time — tension on the Korean Peninsula.

He said the summit gives him hope that denuclearization of North Korea is on the horizon.

Leaf said both Trump and Kim are acting “far outside the norm of their predecessors” when it comes to diplomacy and how they’ve gotten to this point. And while North Korea has backed out of deals in the past, he said, it’s important to give Kim a chance to be his own man.

“We need to allow for an alternate reality because maybe Kim Jong Un is different; he’s certainly different from his father,” Leaf said. “Maybe he really does have a better future for North Korea in mind. We shouldn’t assume it and we shouldn’t dismiss it. And it appears that this administration is not dismissing the possibility.”

Leaf added: “Conventional wisdom is not going to work well in this unconventional case.”

As for what’s next, he said to expect a lot of complex negotiations and political posturing. Leaf said there’s a lot that needs to be done before Kim dismantles his nuclear arsenal.

For Hawaii, Leaf said he’d still like to see the military beef up the state’s missile defense capabilities. He said the January false missile alert that made thousands in Hawaii believe a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile was headed their way helped highlight the issue.

Missile defense is also an important part of Hawaii’s domestic economy, which gets its second largest share of dollars from defense spending.

So don’t expect officials to hit pause on anything that will make the state safer, he said.

“It’s important to recognize that even if the magic wand is waved in Singapore and the North Korean problem is fixed we still need missile defense,” Leaf said. “It could be another rogue nation or it could be China or Russia. They certainly have the capabilities and they’re investing in it.”

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

About the Author