Now, state lawmakers in Hawaii have formally asked the Department of Defense to help with nuclear disaster preparedness in the state. Such plans haven’t been updated at the local level in decades, since 1985, according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. In the early 1980s, Hawaii’s fallout shelters were still stocked with medical kits and food. But those supplies have long since been thrown out, and funding for such shelters evaporated.
Back then, officials had identified hundreds of additional structures, like parking garages, that could serve as makeshift fallout shelters in Hawaii, Governing reported, but officials today don’t even know which of those structures exist anymore—and whether the remaining structures are in adequate shape to serve as shelters.
Hawaii is a natural target for a couple reasons. For one, it’s geographically closer to North Korea than other parts of the United States. Hawaii is also a key strategic position for the U.S. military, which has an enormous presence on the island of Oahu in particular.
Though heightened tensions in Hawaii may be palpable, the people there are used to such flare-ups with North Korea. Even Hawaii’s congressional delegation has remained surprisingly quiet about North Korea in the past week.
“The comparison is, you look at South Korea, where they are almost numb to the threat because they’ve been living under it so long,” said Victor Cha, the director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. “I think where you see the most variations in threat perceptions is in Japan, because all the missiles [North Korea has] been firing lately have been fired into Japan’s seas.”
Japan is, of course, uniquely positioned to understand the threat of nuclear weapons. The United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945.
“For them, the fact that it’s a nuclear threat probably hits home more than literally every other country in the world,” Cha told me. “And Japan is unusual in the sense that it’s a legitimate world power that has chosen—precisely because of its history—never to pursue nuclear weapons.”
This approach has been more controversial in recent decades, as North Korea emerged as a real security threat to Japan. “In 1993, when North Korea tested the first Nodong missile, which is the short-range ballistic missile, there was a sea change in Japan,” Cha said. “The security bubble burst, and all of a sudden the Japanese realized they were under severe threat. Those Nodongs are operational now, and there’s hundreds of them targeted on Japan.”
“I would imagine that when the North Koreans successfully test a solid-fuel medium-range ballistic missile that puts Hawaii and Guam fully in range, that might be more of a concern for people there,” he added.
For now, the nuclear threat Hawaii is facing is serious but also still theoretical. North Korea hasn’t explicitly demonstrated that Hawaii is a target the way it has with Japan. But North Korea is clearly trying to show the world what it intends to develop.