2017 in review: The year the North Korea threat to Hawaii got very real

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As we near the end of 2017, Hawaii News Now is taking a look back at the biggest stories that emerged over the course of a turbulent year for Hawaii.

There's no denying that the North Korean nuclear threat spurred significant concern in the islands this year.

And it prompted the state to revive the attack warning siren.

The siren's wailing sound was something the citizens of Hawaii hadn't heard since the 1980s. The wailing siren reminded many of the Cold War — the last time the tone was part of Hawaii's monthly civil defense test.

"We've got 15, 20 minutes? I'm going to hug whoever's nearest to me that I love and just try to take cover," said Mililani resident Deborah Sutherlan, after hearing the siren's test Dec. 1.

While building its missile capability, North Korea also rapidly escalated the size of its nuclear tests.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanged insults that increased the tension.

Hawaii civil defense officials began planning how to respond to a nuclear attack, even as experts said it was extremely unlikely.

"We have to keep in mind that the North Korean goal here is not to use the missile, not to fire a missile at Hawaii or any other U.S. city," said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center. "The goal is to attain the capability and then use that as leverage to gain concessions from the United States."

In April, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz drew nervous laughter as he dismissed the threat.

"They would like to hit the mainland first because if there's an error there's still going to inflict damage. Finding our islands is a difficult technical matter," he said. "People are laughing but I'm not trying to be funny at all."

That same month both U.S. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Colleen Hanabusa questioned PACOM leaders, who recommended more radar and missile interceptors for Hawaii and led a show of force in the Pacific.

"Kim Jong Un is clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today in my opinion," Adm. Harry Harris said at the time.

Then on July 4, the successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile put Hawaii within easy range, and in September the North exploded an even bigger hydrogen device.

By November, the state was committed to putting the nuclear threat into the public mind.

"Get inside, stay inside and stay tuned," said Vern Miyagi, head of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, in a news conference that month. "It sounds simple, but when you have that short of time, about 12 minutes after we get the notification, 12-13 minutes, that is about all you can do."

At the same press event, Gov. David Ige said, "We believe that it is imperative that we be prepared for every disaster and in today's world, that includes a nuclear attack."

There's little hope the concerns about North Korea will fade in 2018.

In the last week, the United Nations and the Trump administration put even stiffer sanctions on North Korea, which the country called "an act of war."

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