Two years after the false missile alert, should Hawaii be worried about a North Korean attack?

Local News

On January 13th, 2018, an emergency warning appeared on phone screens across Hawaii, alerting everyone: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

The ensuing 38 minutes were fraught with panic and terror, as families were forced to make excruciating decisions about who to call and where to go, or, said differently, who not to call. Such emotional triage is the stuff of apocalypse-themed blockbusters, but rarely is it real life. When the ballistic missile never arrived and the panic subsided, there was one element of truth to the false alert: it wasn’t a drill. It was simply a monumental mistake.

The alert came at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea, who had been threatening each other and testing each other throughout 2017. Now, two years after the false missile alert, bombast has simmered on both ends, and people rarely think about North Korea in their daily lives. But does that mean people in Hawaii shouldn’t, on some level, be worried about the possibility?

I posed this question to several North Korea experts from around the world and across the ideological spectrum to get their take on the likelihood of an attack on Hawaii, as well as the broader picture of US-DPRK relations. The experts are listed below.

Oliver Hotham: Managing editor of
Van Jackson: Professor of International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, host of the Un-Diplomatic Podcast, and author of the book On The Brink: Trump, Kim, and the threat of nuclear war.
Ankit Panda: Senior editor of The Diplomat and author of the forthcoming book Kim Jong Un and the Bomb.
Joshua Stanton: a Washington attorney and blogger who has assisted Republican and Democrat members of Congress with the drafting of North Korea sanctions legislation for the past seven years.
David Volodzko: Editor at Brightwire who has written about North and South Korea for the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Vice, South China Morning Post, and The New Republic, among others. He is also the former national editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily and a former university lecturer.
Rob York: Program director for regional affairs at Pacific Forum.

AP Photo: Ahn Young-joon

KHON2: In January 2018, tensions between US and DPRK were high. They have cooled off considerably since then — what has caused this?

Hotham: This is of course a big question. I’d say the number one reason is Kim Jong-un’s desire to place a moratorium on testing, his willingness to talk to the US and South Korea, and his need to win sanctions relief and reduce the chances of a military conflict. On top of that, Trump’s willingness to break taboos and sit down with a North Korean leader helped!

Jackson: The level of tension is relative.  In January 2018, we were closer to war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  It doesn’t get closer to war without having war.  So there’s quite a high bar to achieve the level of tension that existed in early 2018.  The main reason for the relative decline is that Kim Jong Un got what he was after since coming to power since 2011 — proving that he has a good enough nuclear deterrent.  He achieved that when he successfully launched an ICBM on November 28, 2017. Less than one month later he said, “Ok, Trump, now let’s talk.” That’s literally what happened. Yes, Trump needed to be willing to engage, but he had given indications he wanted to meet Kim Jong Un as early as 2015.  Yes, Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, needed to support engagement with North Korea, but President Moon had been openly advocating for diplomacy from the day he took office.  The crucial differentiating factor is that we were in a race to unwind North Korea’s nuclear capability before it got to a certain level.  We failed, North Korea succeeded, and since that point events have mostly unfolded to Kim Jong Un’s preference.  

Panda: The reduction in tensions was, for a while, a result of the diplomatic process that came together beginning in early 2018. That process has largely run its course now and tensions may soon return.

Volodzko: President Trump’s rhetoric was more hostile at the time, and whether this was the result of sheer incompetence or a calculated effort to drive Pyongyang to the bargaining table, that hostility made armed conflict with a nuclear state seem like a clear and present danger. Trump has since backed off, and tensions have predictably eased.

York: Former National Security Advisor John Bolton has the hawkish reputation but Trump’s early team, particularly HR McMaster and Nikki Haley, were just as aggressive, and unlike later members were more proactive in pushing the president in certain directions, such as for confrontation with the North. North Korea also stopped testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and when that halted Trump seems to have no longer regarded the situation as a test of wills, but a deal waiting to be made.

KHON2: Unlike any past American president, Donald Trump went to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong-un. What has this administration’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea accomplished?

Hotham: I’d say reducing tensions have been the main accomplishment. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. The short answer is “not much.”

Jackson: Nothing positive.  In the short term, the willingness to engage North Korea has contributed to tension reduction, but it was the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy, personal insults aimed at Kim, and threats of war that had heightened tensions in the first place.  The arsonist doesn’t get to be the firefighter.  So in a material sense, Trump diplomacy hasn’t achieved anything but restoring a precious status quo that Trump inherited upon taking office.  

Panda: Trump’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea have made for good TV, but have done little to qualitatively or quantitatively stymie the advancement of nuclear capabilities in North Korea. For a while, the North Koreans were not testing any missiles, largely to maintain positive confidence with the United States, but even that ended in 2019. Now, we’re waiting to see if the North Koreans will return to testing the sorts of highly capable systems that led to spiking tensions back in 2017.

Volodzko: It’s not clear that Trump has accomplished anything, although his critics would say he’s helped accelerate North Korea’s nuclear development by taking Pyongyang at its word and holding talks that look good on paper but get little done. There was the Singapore summit in June 2018, but North Korea subsequently showed no significant change. The Hanoi summit last February broke down with both sides blaming each other, and while Trump’s historic visit to the DMZ in June made for a good photo-op, resumed talks in Stockholm in October broke down after just one day. Yesterday Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the U.S. told North Korea it wants to resume talks. One hopes for progress, but you can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

York: It demonstrated that this president is willing to break with precedent and meet with the North Korean leader Trump’s predecessors had refused to elevate, and it seemingly established a personal rapport between the two. However, the Trump admin’s push for more consequential denuclearization before sanctions relief shows that disregard for the past has limits, and its actions toward Iran recently show that its trend-bucking isn’t always in the direction of peace.

Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un
AP Photo: Evan Vucci

KHON2: Have relations between US and the DPRK changed in recent years?

Hotham: Not a huge change in relations more broadly. North Korea still sees the US as hostile, the US still sees North Korea as a threat. I guess the two leaders now have a “personal relationship,” which is a first.

Jackson: US-DPRK relations have not changed at all.  None.  No evidence of that whatsoever.  What has changed is that the two leaders were willing to meet a couple times.  There are circumstances where personal diplomacy can make a difference, but not in the Korea case because 1) Kim sees Trump as an aberration that’s not really representative of the United States, and 2) neither side ever moved off of their nation’s goals.  

Panda: Relations between the United States and North Korea have waxed and waned between crisis and engagement, but broadly, the fundamental contours of the relationship remain as poor as ever.

York: With each new administration there has been a tendency to see the North as a product of the previous president’s mistakes. The Bush team blamed Clinton’s credulousness toward the Agreed Framework; the Obama administration blamed Bush’s recklessness on the global stage; and Trump’s team has blamed Obama’s dithering while Pyongyang perfected its deterrent.

I would hope that eventually Americans would start to see North Korea as having its own internal logic, and one that has reason to fear for its survival if it is too cooperative. But also one that knows how to survive, and while it does push buttons, it doesn’t seek a conflict that would destroy it.

Trump can’t deal North Korea out of its deterrent any more than Obama’s outstretched hand could. We should oppose North Korea’s nuclear proliferation not because they’re destined to use it against us, but to prevent wider regional proliferation, because the North’s suffering populace pays the price for its development and because the close calls of the Cold War are not events we wish to repeat.

KHON2: The false missile alert made a lot of people in Hawaii nervous about the potential threat of a North Korean attack. How legitimate was/is the possibility of North Korea attacking Hawaii?

Hotham: There’s almost no chance that North Korea would ever attack Hawaii out of the blue. Kim Jong-un knows that would be suicidal for himself and his regime.

Jackson: It’s not a high probability scenario, but it could happen.  North Korea’s strategy in a conflict is to target US military assets that would be used to project force into the Korean Peninsula — that makes Hawaii the most important missile target, along with Guam and a couple locations in Japan.  If North Korea can destroy ports, airfields, and bases in those key locations, it shuts down the US ability to invade and buys them a lot of time that they could use to make diplomacy work.  Which is why in North Korean strategic thinking Hawaii is a high-priority target. That’s what was so dangerous about 2017 — we were on the brink of war, and North Korea faces a lot of incentives to launch against key US targets preemptively if it thinks war is definitely going to happen.  And we were knocking on the door to inevitability in 2017 because of the heightened military posture and unprecedented threat rhetoric.  We were unwittingly pushing North Korea to launch against Hawaii.  So as long as US-North Korea rivalry remains in place — as it does now — Hawaii will always be at risk of a North Korean missile strike.  But it’s not something to lose sleep over unless we find ourselves back in a crisis like 2017.

Panda: Based on what we know about North Korea’s nuclear strategy, it would be folly for Kim to conduct a bolt-out-of-the-blue strike with a ballistic missile on any U.S. territory in peacetime, including Hawaii. The false alert was certainly serious and revealed just how concerned many Americans were about the threat from North Korea, but in reality, such a strike would make little sense and do little for North Korean national interests.

Volodzko: If North Korea were to launch an attack, Hawaii would probably be a top target. It doesn’t offer the population density of West Coast cities like Los Angeles or Seattle, but Honolulu is home to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and the U.S. Marines installation Camps H.M. Smith, which serves as headquarters for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Special Operations Command Pacific and Marine Forces Pacific, making it a high-value target, not to mention the emotional impact of such an attack, which would clearly echo Pearl Harbor.

York: Unthinkable, barring a preemptive strike from the US. For one, North Korea’s long-range missile may be able to reach the US mainland, but other steps, like a re-entry system, are far from proven. Even if they could strike the US, doing so would give this administration (or any other) the justification to unleash its arsenal against the North. That would be a stark contrast from the North’s reputation for survivalism.

Joshua Stanton was unable to answer the previous questions, but offered this comment instead: Kim Jong-un’s year could have been a lot worse. He got an undeclared pause in sanctions designations and military exercises, silenced the leaders of the U.S. and South Korea on human rights, raced ahead with his nuclear and missile programs, drove a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea on sanctions relief, and watched South Korea and Japan feud over things that happened 70 years ago. He probably sees those long-term gains as worth the short-term costs. Now, he’s just running down the clock on Donald Trump.

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