Nuclear tough talk? Let calm prevail

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  • Justwan

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North Idahoans should be cognizant of the escalated talks of nuclear war between the United States and North Korea, but they shouldn't let it consume them or cause fear, multiple state and county sources said.

"I'm not sure all of the freaking out is justified," said Florian Justwan, an assistant political science professor at the University of Idaho. "The North Korean regime over the past 10 to 15 years have made threats to the United States and more immediate neighbors and have not followed through with any of the threats."

Justwan said the recent rhetoric of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un planning to strike near Guam is likely a self-serving political power move.

"It's an attempt to shore up support in the regime," Justwan said. "This is not a foreign policy strategy, but more rhetoric for support."

Justwan cautioned residents to not overanalyze the nuclear threats made by the 33-year-old leader.

"While it's true North Korea could send missiles to Guam, it has not directly threatened an attack on American soil," he said. "It demonstrates the capability of the regime, but is not necessarily intended to destroy American properties and lives."

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, sits on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees and is co-chairman of the Senate National Security Working Group.

He said he couldn't discuss specific potential Northwest targets if any nuclear threats were made toward the West Coast.

"We don't know what the scenario would be, and potential targets are highly classified information," Risch said.

The senator said a key message he wants to deliver to Idahoans, amid the talk of nuclear war between the countries, is to remain calm.

"Do what you do and go about your daily lives," he said. "The likelihood of this having a direct effect of any kind on us is pretty remote."

In general, potential nuclear targets include strategic missile sites and military bases, major ports and airfields, petroleum refineries and power plants, key transportation and communication centers and centers of government.

Alex Wellerstein, a historian who specializes in the history of nuclear weapons, has a doctorate degree in history of science from Harvard and oversees an online nuclear weapons effects simulator, wrote in an email to The Press that he doesn't have any reason to believe North Idaho would be in danger "except in the event of an all-out thermonuclear war with Russia or China, which seems unlikely."

Even then, the only potential fallout hazard he sees in the Inland Northwest is from a country dropping "several large bombs" on a submarine base near Seattle, he wrote.

"In the Cold War, Hanford (nuclear site near the Tri-Cities in Washington) might have been another target to worry about in terms of radioactive fallout, but I suspect it is not now," Wellerstein wrote.

Kootenai County Commissioner Chris Fillios said the only state that county leaders are aware of with any sense of heightened alert is Hawaii "for the obvious reason that it is the proximate territory to North Korea."

"The emergency preparedness plan being assembled by Hawaii has caught the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, which will likely review the plan as a possible template for other states and counties," Fillios said.

Closer to home, Kootenai County has an emergency operations plan that addresses how local governments should work in cooperation with state and federal agencies in the event of a nuclear, biological or chemical disaster. Last year agencies throughout the Northwest participated in a mock natural disaster drill called Cascadia Rising involving the fallout from an earthquake on the coast.

Sandy Von Behren, Kootenai County's Office of Emergency Management director who participated in the drill, said many of the same response principles would be activated locally if dealing with fallout from a nuclear attack on the coast.

Von Behren said her department has received a few calls since President Donald Trump's threats last week to unleash "fire and fury" on North Korea if it continued to threaten the U.S.

"They want to know what plans we have in place and how we would respond if something happens," she said of the local inquiries.

Like Risch, Von Behren said calm should prevail.

"We have not received any information that we need to be directly concerned at this time," she said.

Post Falls police Chief Scot Haug said his department has been following the heated exchange between the leaders of the two nations, but it has not received any calls from concerned citizens.

"As was our message after the 9/11 attacks, we continue to encourage people to remain aware of their surroundings, be prepared and not get complacent," he said.

Major Christopher Borders, spokesman for the Idaho National Guard, said his agency along with the Idaho Office of Emergency Management stands ready should threats from North Korea be acted upon.

OEM's mission includes providing the 44 counties and five tribes with resources during a natural or manmade emergency.

The National Guard assists the Armed Forces with national security by continuously maintaining a high level of readiness.

"This directly contributes to the U.S. military's collective and overwhelming capability to counter any threat, including those from North Korea," Borders said.

He said the National Guard would leverage its same skills, assets and equipment here as it does in overseas missions in the areas of medical, engineering and countering weapons of mass destruction.

Justwan said many international political experts believe the North Korean threats are not about attacking the U.S. but to demonstrate North Korea merely has the capability to send the missiles.

"I don't think the threat of war is any more significant today than it was a week or two ago," he said. "We shouldn't be scared at this point."

Whether Trump's stern "fire and fury" warning was justified is debatable.

"There is a place in global politics to be stern about clear threats, but it seems to me that statements were made without a larger purpose," Justwan said.

Risch defends Trump's sharp approach.

"He has a passion about defending this country, and that's the first responsibility of the Central Government," he said. "With these people that we are dealing with, it is important that they have a clear, unequivocal understanding of the President so they have the ability to think it through and determine the consequences.

"We want to make sure that whatever North Korea does, it doesn't make a mistake because a mistake will be catastrophic."

Risch said Trump's warning was strikingly similar to the warning President Harry Truman gave Japan before nuclear weapons were used to end World War II.

"He was very direct, but they persisted and we all know what happened after that," Risch said.

Risch said many media reports have focused on Trump's stern stance on North Korea, but they should be on Kim Jong Un.

Some analysts dismissed the North Korean leader as an inexperienced figurehead when he took power at 27 and leapfrogged his brothers to succeed his father.

"This is about North Korea being a rogue regime not inclined to behave as other civilized countries do," he said. "They keep developing nuclear weapons in defiance of international sanctions."

Risch said that while the U.S. and Russia fully understand each other's ability when it comes to nuclear power — both have the ability to destroy each other — it's far from that way between the U.S. and North Korea.

"There are strong protocols in place for there to never be a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Russia," he said. "With North Korea, there are a lot of unknowns."

Risch said North Korea having nuclear weapons and delivering them are two different things.

"The intelligence community is split as to what North Korea's ability is to deliver nuclear weapons and what kind they do have," he said, adding that recent information points toward their ability to deliver.

Risch said there also isn't clarity on how many weapons North Korea has and the delivery systems the country has.

"With so many unknowns, it's a lot easier to look at this from our side," he said. "We know what we have and can do. They in essence would cease to exist in very short order."

However, Risch said the U.S. still hopes matters can be resolved through diplomacy.

"But diplomacy requires a statesman with diplomatic skills and inclinations," he said. "We're sure not seeing that from the North Koreans right now."

Risch said he believes it would be "highly unlikely" for Russia and China to enter the war games between the U.S. and North Korea.

"We're the only country that's ever used nuclear weapons after World War II," he said.

Moving forward, Justwan said North Korea will continue as one of the main policy challenges for the Trump Administration.

"This is not the first nor will it be the last time that North Korea engages in fiery rhetoric to look strong without doing anything," he said.

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