It’s a gorgeous afternoon, and I’m at a beach in Kihei. It’s warm and clear; the sun is blazing over a crystal blue ocean. But I’m not there to jump in the water–instead, I’m searching for a cave that will protect me and possibly my loved ones in the event of a nuclear attack.
I’ve been tipped off by a friend as to its existence (because of the nature of this story, I’m going to keep the actual location of the cave a secret, though I will give you a hint: it rhymes with “coat damp”) but it still takes me a few minutes to find it. Once I do, though, I’m disappointed: the cave is small, looking like it’ll only protect a family of four for about 15 seconds. The ceiling is very low, it only goes back about 10 feet and there are a disconcerting number of spider webs around.
No, it simply won’t do.
My search began not long after CNN’s Aug. 9 report “Hawaii: First state to prepare for nuclear attack.” The story, based in large part on an interview with Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Administrator Vern Miyagi, as well as materials prepared by the Hawaii state Department of Defense, listed a number of recommendations on what people should do in the event of a nuclear attack. The last one caught my eye:
“If you are on the beach with no chance of getting to a structure, look for a cave.”
Were we all living on Gilligan’s Island, where there seemed no shortage of large caves around in the event of typhoons, tsunami waves or that one time when all the castaways suddenly became allergic to Gilligan and he needed a place to hide out. But here on Maui, I can’t really think of a lot of beach caves off the top of my head.
Turns out that ducking into a cave isn’t exactly on the list of recommended procedures Hawaii emergency officials typically tell the public. According to Lt. Col. Charles Anthony, public affairs officer for Hawaii DOD, during the CNN interview with Miyagi, the reporter asked him if it would be okay for people at the beach to hide in a cave during an attack. Miyagi answered sure, according to Anthony, before adding that it’s far more likely that people at the beach would be closer to large structures like hotels that they could run into.
“I guess when you’re being interviewed on camera, you don’t always think through the answer,” Anthony told me. “This is not part of our normal information that we would ordinarily disseminate to the public. And we have no plans to add caves or lava tubes to our list of places where to shelter.”
So yeah, the whole cave thing was hype, but it’s far from the only alarmism that’s happening here.
CNN’s whole cave advice was silly and absurd for a whole bunch of reasons, but Miyagi’s description of how much warning Hawaii residents would get of a nuclear missile strike launched by North Korea was as scary as you can get. “Pacific Command would take about five minutes to characterize a launch, where the missile is going, which means the population would have about 15 minutes to take shelter,” Miyagi told CNN. “You can’t take time to call your wife, your kids, your husband to pick them up and try to find a shelter. There is no time for that.”
What is this, 1955? North Korea has been working on nuclear weapons for the last decade, but now suddenly that Trump is in power we all have to hunker down and fear for our lives on a daily, if not hourly basis.
In a way this was inevitable. Terror is clearly the tone of the 21st century. Sure, New York and Washington were attacked back in 2001, but how many millions of people around the world have spent the last few decades living in fear of U.S. military power? And now, the nuclear weapons we brought into the world are potentially pointed at us.
Assuming you survive the blast from a nuclear explosion (and that’s contingent on factors like the size of the warhead, where it lands, the availability of nearby shrapnel and the surrounding topography), you’ll have to hunker down in your shelter for about two weeks, while the surround radioactive fallout dissipates. Forget spending two weeks in a cave by the beach–you want to spend two weeks in your office? Or the mattress section of Sears with a few hundred other people?
Assuming you heard the warning siren and have a full 15 minutes to find yourself a proper shelter, Hawaii EMA recommends ducking into a basement or concrete structure. And remember, this is Hawaii in 2017–not the videogame world of Fallout. Nuclear shelters are long gone, and they’re not coming back.
“There are no designated blast or fallout shelters in Hawaii,” states the Hawaii DOD’s Guidance Summary for Coordinated Public Messaging: Nuclear Detonation handout. “Local AM-FM broadcast radio is most survivable and may be useful in advising the public post-detonation.”
Nuclear weapons have been around since 1945, but we’ve still never found a way to live comfortably with them. The Cold War has been over for more than a generation, but thousands still exist, in bomb bays, missile silos and submarines, patiently waiting for someone to use them and end all life on earth.
“Then a tremendous flash of light cut across the sky,” John Hersey wrote in his 1946 New Yorker story “Hiroshima.” “Mr. Tanimoto has a distinct recollection that it traveled from east to west, from the city toward the hills. It seemed a sheet of sun.”
The bomb dropped on Hiroshima had the explosive power of about 18 kilotons–the equivalent of 18,000 tons of TNT–making it tiny by today’s standards. By contrast, today’s B61 nuclear bomb can deliver up to 340 kilotons, while our largest ICBMs can each carry a dozen 475-kiloton warheads. The Hiroshima bomb killed at least 66,000 people outright (the vast majority being civilians) and injured another 69,000. Untold thousands died in the days, weeks and months later from radiation poisoning.
Though it’s not well known today, after Japan surrendered America’s top military commanders–Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, Henry Arnold and Admirals Ernest J. King, Chester Nimitz, William Halsey and William Leahy, among others–all insisted that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki played no decisive part in the ending of the war. The Japanese Empire, these commanders noted, was finished before the fateful Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945 atomic bombings.
Of course, none of that mattered. We had the bomb, and it was up to a politician to decide to use it. I know it’s scary nowadays to watch Pastor Robert Jeffress, an evangelical adviser to President Trump, say that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un,” but in terms of terrifying hubris, not much tops Truman’s filmed statement to the American people right after we bombed Hiroshima.
“We thank God that it has come to us and not to our enemies,” Truman said. “And we pray that he may guide us to use it in His way and for His purposes.”
Of course, just four years later God gave the bomb to Stalin and the Russians, so maybe we weren’t so special after all.
You know what was special? Four decades of living with the thought of an all-out thermonuclear apocalypse. I know it’s kinda novel for people today to run around worrying about North Korean nukes, but I have vivid memories as a kid in the early 1980s laying up at night wondering if the world would blow up before I got to school the next day.
The days of “duck and cover,” when our government showered us in propaganda meant to convince us that we could “win” a nuclear war with the Soviets, stretched long into the 1980s (thankfully, I didn’t learn until I was much older that on Sept. 23, 1983, we really did come within a hair of an all-out nuclear exchange when the Soviet early warning system malfunctioned and, for a few terrifying minutes in Moscow, it looked like the U.S. had launched five missiles at them).
There is, of course, no winning in nuclear war. Whether one warhead is detonated or 10,000, the resulting death and destruction is indistinguishable from genocide. Arguing otherwise is intellectual barbarism. In any “exchange,” regardless of civil defense preparations, many thousands of people will die. If Trump orders the use of nuclear weapons on North Korea, then he’s committing a war crime (and yes, I believe Truman’s use of atomic bombs on Japan was also a war crime, as were the whole terror bombing campaigns employed by the U.S., Great Britain, Germany and Japan during that war).
And make no mistake: the use of nuclear weapons in the United States is at the discretion of the president, and only the president. The Secretary of Defense plays no legal part in it. The president instructs his military commanders to use nuclear weapons and that’s it. There’s no consultation with Congress, no declaration of war. The whole blasted process is wildly unconstitutional, but the traditionally bipartisan manner in which foreign policy has been conducted throughout the Cold War meant Trump came into office with one of the most power nuclear arsenals in history primed and waiting for his command.
So here we all are, effectively sitting on a beach on Maui waiting for either the nutty Kim Jong-Un in Pyongyang or the equally nutty Donald Trump in Washington (or perhaps his golf course in New Jersey) to start World War III. If it seems stupid to you that one of the smallest, poorest nations on earth is threatening us, and that we’re, in turn, threatening one of the smallest, poorest nations on earth, then embrace the fact that we truly live in an Age of Stupidity (just for some perspective, on Aug. 11 Trump also threatened military action against Venezuela).
Very long story short, the North Korean regime is terrified that the U.S. will invade them. Their evidence for this goes back to the original Korean War, when Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both openly talked about nuking the north. And it wasn’t just them, either: long before he became President Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Texas Democrat Lloyd Bentsen asked Truman to drop atomic bombs on North Korea. You may not remember these statements, but you can be confident the North Korean government does.
Add to this old history relatively recent events like the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and countless other actions (publicized and not) involving drone strikes and special forces actions, and you get a picture of a United States that likes to bully other nations (often killing civilians in the process). This history did not originate with Trump, of course, which just lends more weight to the North Korean view that the only way to keep them safe from the U.S. is to build nuclear weapons.
“North Korea learned from Iraq that Saddam Hussein’s mistake was he did not possess the weapons of mass destruction he was falsely accused of having,” Professor John Delury, of the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, said in a Sept. 9, 2016 BBC story. “Libya taught a similar lesson. So, until we can help Pyongyang find a credible substitute to guarantee its security, and give Kim Jong-un the kind of prestige that comes with being a member of the nuclear club, then we can expect more tests, more progress and more ‘provocations’.”
President Trump has, in his typical fashion, made everything much worse. The latest threats/counter-threats/counter-counter-threats started on Aug. 8, when reporters asked Trump (at his golf course, naturally) about a Washington Post story published that morning saying that North Korea could now fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile, potentially allowing them to build an ICBM capable of reaching not merely Alaska and Hawaii, but also much of the U.S. Mainland.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
The remarks were apparently improvised, though Trump has often used the “like the world has never seen” cliche many times in the past. But the off-the-wall verbiage in the quote–“fire and fury”–was frankly something we’re used to seeing come from, well, North Korea. Trump’s statement that North Korea also needed to stop making “threats” was also especially problematic–Kim Jong-Un makes wild threats at least as often as Trump does. And sure enough, just a few hours later, North Korea followed up with bombast of its own, calling Trump’s statement “nonsense” (gotta agree with that one) and saying that they were making plans to launch missiles at the waters just off Guam in mid-August.
Granted, the specificity of that particular threat has led some analysts to conclude that they’re probably talking about launching unarmed missiles as part of a test, but it’s incredibly provocative nonetheless (on Aug. 14, the North Korean regime seemed to back of fthe threat to launch on Guam, but it’s still impossible to say exactly what, if anything, they’ll do). Of course, our recent military exercises over South Korea involving B-1B heavy bombers (which actually can’t carry nuclear weapons) must seem equally provocative to North Korea.
On Aug. 10, Trump responded to the Guam threat by somehow summoning even more dick-swinging, garbled bombast. “The people in this country [I think he means the U.S.] should be very comfortable, and I will tell you this: if North Korea does anything in terms of even thinking about attack, of anybody that we love or we represent or our allies or us, they can be very, very nervous,” Trump said. “I’ll tell you why, and they should be very nervous. Because things will happen to them like they never thought possible.”
The media mostly played this up as Trump threatening North Korea with nuclear annihilation, which he certainly was. But a couple things stood out: first, the U.S. has often threatened North Korea with nuclear attack–it’s long been our way of deterring them from invading South Korea again. And secondly, Trump had backed down from his earlier assertion. On Aug. 8 he was warning North Korea not to make “threats,” but two days later he changed his focus to a potential “attack”–a far higher threshold for going to war.
Of course, all this assumes the North Koreans actually have the capability to build and launch a functioning, armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)–one that can reach the Mainland, Hawaii or even Guam. Back in April, when North Korean nuclear terror started to ratchet up in Hawaii, I reported a couple of stories based on the premise, from Center for Strategic and International Studies Proliferation Prevention Program Director Sharon Squassoni, that “North Korea is still a few years away from being able to target U.S. territory.” Even with all the fire and brimstone coming from Washington–including that Aug. 8 Washington Post story–this still seems to be the case. That’s because there’s a lot more to building a workable, targetable, launchable ICBM than simply miniaturizing a nuclear bomb to fit beneath a rocket’s nose cone.
“It’s very difficult to know exactly what capabilities North Korea can field because the United States must rely on remote monitoring technology like satellite imagery,” Squassoni told me in an Aug. 12 email. “North Korea has often exaggerated its capabilities in the past (like declaring it has a hydrogen bomb) because that suits its purposes. Even U.S. government assessments at this point are likely best guesses. No one knows for sure whether North Korea has been able to scale down the size of its warheads so they can fit atop a missile that could reach the United States.”
Two recent stories from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists–long one of the best and most rational journal of nuclear weapons research and philosophy–pour a lot of cold water on the hype surrounding North Korean nuclear missiles. In her Aug. 7 Bulletin story “Talk to North Korea to avert a nuclear disaster,” writer Elisabeth Eaves asks Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (one of the main labs used in the development of the first atomic bomb), if North Korea can right now launch an ICBM that can hit Hawaii or the U.S. Mainland. His answer is worth quoting at length:
“I think not yet, but these two tests demonstrate substantial progress and most likely mean they will be able to master the technology in the next year or two,” said Hecker. “The North Koreans have very cleverly combined various missile stages and rocket engines to get this far, but a reliable, accurate ICBM will require more testing. In addition, it is not clear whether they have sufficiently mastered reentry vehicles, which are needed to house the nuclear warhead on an ICBM. Advanced reentry vehicles and mechanisms to defeat missile defense systems may still be five or so years away. However, make no mistake, North Korea is working in all of these directions.”
Because ICBMs travel into space on their way to their target, their warheads need a proper “reentry vehicle” to keep them from being destroyed when reentering the earth’s atmosphere. Reentry shielding is difficult to engineer properly, and even when done correctly adds a lot of weight to the missile, potentially limiting the size of the warhead (or warheads).
A second Bulletin story, published on Aug. 11 and written by Theodore A. Postol, Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker, is even more definitive. The article analyzes two North Korean missile tests in July and concludes that no, North Korea cannot yet field a nuclear-armed missile capable of hitting the U.S. Mainland (in fact, the authors note, it’s doubtful North Korea’s latest missile can even hit Alaska). Of course, this isn’t a definitive answer–just the best analysis based on available evidence.
“At this time, no one outside of North Korea has solid information about the characteristics of North Korea’s nuclear weapons designs–especially about whether or not the weapons that have been tested are cumbersome laboratory devices or readily militarized designs that could be put into bombs or carried on ballistic missiles,” states the Aug. 11 Bulletin article. “This information is simply not available at this time.”
For Squassoni, who makes her living studying nuclear proliferation, all this speculation about what the North Koreans can actually field is beside the point.
“If the Trump administration really thinks North Korea is the biggest threat at the moment, why is the administration failing to exert discipline on its responses to North Korea?” she said in her Aug. 12 email. “If this is really the biggest threat, wouldn’t it be paramount to have a single, crystal-clear message that is designed not to aggravate the North Koreans into taking risks but to defuse the tension? More importantly, why does the Trump Administration feel so threatened when our nuclear weapons outnumber North Korea’s by about 4,000?”
There’s already so much to fear in our country today–notably the Trump Administration’s sympathy to white supremacists and Nazis, denial of climate change and attacks of voting rights and civil rights. It’s contemptible that Trump now wants us to panic about North Korea.
“Washington should tone down the rhetoric,” Squassoni said. “North Korea, despite its provocative behavior, is not a real threat to the United States. Despite all the bluster, Kim Jong Un undoubtedly knows that a significant strike (nuclear or not) on U.S. troops or soil would be suicidal for him and his regime. The most important objective for Washington should be getting North Korean officials to sit down and talk. There has to be flexibility on both sides for that to happen.”
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Kihei cave photo: Sean M. Hower