HONOLULU: When the state-wide warning siren in Hawaii went off around noon on May 1, the first thought that crossed Ms Kirstin Pauka’s mind involved a reclusive country located more than 7,000 kilometres away from the United States.
“I remembered wondering whether this could be related to a North Korea attack before realising it was the routine siren test,” said the 54-year-old. “Coverage in the local press gave some attention to this for a while so it is on people's minds.”
While North Korea remains a more pressing security headache for its neighbours in Northeast Asia, its defiance of international calls to rein in its weapons programme has set some alarm bells ringing in other parts of the world. Particularly in Hawaii, which is geographically closer to the totalitarian state than other parts of the United States, and is a key strategic location for the US military. As such, it may be first in the firing line if North Korea develops the missile technology to strike the US.
On Tuesday (May 23), US Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart said North Korea, if left unchecked, is on an "inevitable" path to obtaining a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States.
This comes as Pyongyang on Sunday launched its eighth missile test this year, firing what it called the Pukguksong-2 – a medium-range missile which travelled about 500 kilometres before falling into waters off its east coast. That follows the firing of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile on May 14, which according to North Korea was capable of carrying a "heavy" nuclear warhead and put the US mainland within "sighting range".
Experts have said the Hwasong, which flew almost 800 kilometres, travelled further than any previous ballistic missile launched by the North and seems to have advanced Pyongyang’s capability to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the US mainland.
Last month, the chief of US Pacific Command (PACOM) said the US may need to strengthen its missile defences, particularly in Hawaii, in response to the escalating threat from North Korea. While the state’s defences were sufficient for now, it could one day be overwhelmed, said Admiral Harry Harris.
“North Korea’s nuclear threat is a crisis that will re-erupt every spring because of the US-South Korea annual joint military exercises, and also with every additional missile and nuclear test,” said Mr Denny Roy, a research fellow at Hawaii-based research institute East-West Center. “From now on, each eruption will get progressively more serious because Pyongyang continuously gets closer to a capability that can directly threaten the US homeland.”
According to Mr Roy, North Korean missiles “are getting close to flying a distance that could reach US bases in Guam” which is about 3,500 kilometres away from North Korea, with the next thresholds being Alaska and Hawaii.
“I don’t think they can hit a particular city in the US at this point in time but they could threaten US cities in maybe five to 10 years so we have to plan before they gain that capability,” he added.
IS HAWAII PREPARED?
For some locals like Ms Pauka, worries about the state of preparedness in Hawaii stem from the absence of adequate shelters, as well as the lack of public awareness on what to do during and after an attack.
“Despite yearly emergency preparedness months promoted by the state government, the majority of the population is completely unprepared, not even having water, batteries, and other emergency supplies at home,” she said. “There are no adequate shelters, and the few we have are not up to code, stocked, or connected to generators.”
Mr Toby Clairmont, executive officer of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, acknowledged the “rising tide of public concerns” related to North Korea of late.
He added that if North Korea initiates an attack, a missile could reach Hawaii within 20 minutes. “Regardless or not we think we are a likely target, we will have to prepare for it.”
Part of the preparation underway involves a reassessment of the state’s emergency response plans, which have not been updated since the 1980s, according to Mr Clairmont. That will include the repair of Hawaii’s hundreds of fallout shelters from the Cold War era and restocking them with medical supplies, food and water.
“If you refer to an old guide, it will lead you to an old fallout shelter in Hawaii that is not properly equipped or stocked. When the Cold War ended, so did the funding for all these as resources went to other priorities, such as terrorism,” he said. “It will be a long rebuild.”
The public, which remains better prepared for natural disasters such as hurricanes, will also need to be educated.
“We have somebody who will decide the launch at will and we only have 20 minutes. Instead of following a map to a designated shelter, we think people need to know how to locate an adequate enough shelter ... It can be a parking structure or if you are in a building, go to the basement and head towards the center, or hide behind anything concrete,” Mr Clairmont explained.
A state-wide campaign is in the works, with the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency looking to target the younger generation who did not live through the Cold War.
“I grew up during the Cold War and up until 1985, there were still visible plans such as a supplement that went into the newspapers with instructions on what to do during an attack and drills at school," Mr Clairmont recounted. "But the younger people had none of that so we want to begin talking to the public without scaring them.”
But these are unlikely to be achieved overnight and until then, Hawaii’s preparedness in the event of an attack remains off the mark, admitted Mr Clairmont.
Nonetheless, not everyone is worried about the threats from an isolated state far from home.
“I’ve seen some stuff about (North Korea) in the news and it got some people thinking about Pearl Harbour for a bit - but me, worried? (sic) Not at all,” said 41-year-old taxi driver Vili Vitoria, referring to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941.
“Life’s too busy to think about things that may or may not happen, you know.”
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