This past Saturday, residents of Hawaii received an alert that they would be faced with immediate annihilation via a ballistic missile. Although the alert was sent in error by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, this egregious mistake reveals a dangerous lack of preparation and protocol in the event of an actual nuclear attack, if it were to occur. Hawaiians, at the time, did not know what sufficed as “adequate shelter” nor did they know how they could best protect themselves during those hectic thirty-eight minutes of seemingly impending doom. Many simply resorted to frantic phone calls and texts to loved ones in what they believed would be their last moments before a nuclear holocaust. Considering that a missile from North Korea would, theoretically, only take thirty minutes to reach Hawaii, this panic revealed that without an established protocol in place, an emergency notification system may do more far more harm than good. 

Since Trump’s inauguration, the worsening tensions between North Korea and the United States have not been taken seriously. Between “Little Rocket Man” taunts and a nuclear button measuring contest with phallic undertones, the Trump administration seems to thrive off of belittling North Korea even as it remains unprepared for continued escalation. Since the September 11th attacks nearly 17 years ago, there have been no comparable threats to the United States and, for most of us at Duke, nuclear annihilation fears remain a distant relic of the Cold War era. Yet this fear has been newly reborn in light of increasing antagonizing threats that Trump has been leveling against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Americans are finally beginning to experience the same fears that North Koreans have felt since the end of the Korean War and that our Asian allies have felt since North Korea first acquired nuclear capabilities. As a nation, we have forgotten how to cope with our nuclear fears, which begs the question, what should we do moving forward?

As more facts emerge from this incident, the Trump administration has an opportunity to assuage these fears and to develop practical protocols for Americans at risk. For instance, the government can emphasize to residents within range of a potential attack that North Korea's no-first-use policy remains in place as well as the fact that North Korea has not yet achieved long-range nuclear capabilities that would pose a threat to the continental United States. It could update and practice the protocols that are currently in place in the event of a domestic attack. Or Trump can simply continue to recklessly use the lives of ordinary Americans as a dangerous betting chip in his political standoff with Kim. Indeed, fearmongering around North Korea is a convenient distraction for the other issues plaguing this administration and, perhaps most importantly, a diversion from Trump’s quickly decreasing popularity ratings

It is clear that the North Korean threat is complex. It demands nuanced approaches that favor de-escalation, rather than saber-rattling tweets. If our ultimate goal is to prevent any possibility of nuclear annihilation and to instead resolve these fears at their root, we cannot continue down this path of ham-fisted bravado. With recent breakthroughs, we need to support South Korea as it engages with North Korea in their first diplomatic talks in over a year. At the same time, we need more focused, unified responses to such threats as well as an American leadership willing to take responsibility for the effort.