Even if the unthinkable were to happen, state law actually bars Washington’s emergency planners from crafting a plan to specifically address a nuclear attack. The law is a remnant of the end of the Cold War.
North Korea will soon have the capability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the contiguous United States, foreign-policy analysts and government insiders say.
Seattle is viewed as a logical target because of the city’s dense population, booming high-tech industry, nearby military bases and relative proximity to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
As difficult as that is to contemplate, consider this: State law actually bars Washington’s emergency planners from crafting a plan to specifically address a nuclear attack.
(Now’s a good time for a deep breath.)
Despite those scary revelations, it’s not time to build a bunker or flee into the Cascades to live out survivalist fantasies.
North Korea, experts say, would seal its own destruction if it were to launch a nuclear attack on Seattle, or anywhere else in the U.S.
“Deterrence works for North Korea, like it does any country … You drop a bomb on Seattle, North Korea’s toast,” said Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear nonproliferation nonprofit.
“What would they gain by hitting Seattle? Why would they do this? The only thing you can come up with is madness. Is North Korea mad?”
Terrible, he thinks, but not crazy.
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“Ruthless, brutal, immoral … all this crazy stuff Kim Jong Un is doing is serving his interest,” Cirincione said of the North Korean autocrat and his desire to stay in power.
Plus, Cirincione added, “ … if they can hit Seattle, sooner or later they’re going to be able to hit Washington (D.C.),” which could make Seattle a relatively less attractive target.
Feeling somewhat relieved? Let’s unpack this a bit.
“We’re probably a year or two — maximum three years away — from truly thinking they could credibly deliver a nuclear weapon to Seattle,” said Rich Ellings, president of the National Bureau of Asian Research.
That assessment hews closely to what insiders and other analysts have said publicly.
How do they know?
Among the clues: radar tracking of missile tests, examinations of smoke plumes that reveal fuel developments, high-definition photos of rockets (real and fake) that give insight into design, and the fact that North Korea has sent satellites into orbit.
“It’s not primitive anymore. They have advanced rocket design,” Cirincione said.
“Short story is they’re working on the components, they’re working on solid fuel, more powerful engines, the re-entry vehicle, all of which will give them the range they need.”
Of targets on the West Coast, Seattle “is the most attractive,” Ellings said.
“We’re the closest on the West Coast of any major American city to North Korea. The shorter the distance, the more accurate.”
Plus, the Puget Sound region is home to “terribly important strategic assets” like Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Naval Base Kitsap and the Bangor submarine base on Hood Canal, Ellings said.
“They could knock out a large part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal with a hit on the (submarine) base,” Cirincione said.
Seattle is dense.
“It’s geographically tight and concentrated and in between hills. It makes almost an ideal nuclear target in an urban environment,” Ellings said.
Plus, we’re a high-tech hub: Think Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft.
“It is quite a juicy target,” Ellings said.
A nuclear strike, of course, would be catastrophic. North Korea in September 2016 detonated a weapon similar in strength to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
A weapon that size could demolish much of downtown Seattle and kill tens of thousands.
State emergency planners aren’t allowed to contemplate such destruction.
“We’re prevented from coming up or preparing a specific plan to address a nuclear attack,” said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the state’s Military Department, which is in charge of state emergency response to disaster.
That’s because of 1984 legislation that says the agency’s “comprehensive, all-hazard emergency plan may not include preparation for emergency evacuation or relocation of residents in anticipation of nuclear attack.”
Dick Nelson, a former state representative from Seattle, sponsored the bill. At the time, the federal government was in the business of coercing states and localities to plan for nuclear war.
But Nelson and colleagues in the Legislature thought it was silly to focus emergency-planning resources on a nuclear attack when other threats (like a Mount Rainier lahar) seemed more likely and more easily survived.
“We were feeling better about our relationship with the Soviet Union in the ’80s — that’s before it collapsed — and we had nuclear treaties with them to reduce nuclear weapons,” Nelson said. “Anything that was a prescription for more concern, like civil-defense exercise, was felt to be nonproductive … People didn’t want to be in any sort of posture that people were anticipating more (nuclear) threats. We wanted to reduce the threat.”
The state’s approach came to a head with the federal government in 1984, when Washington refused to comply with a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) nuke-attack planning drill. In return, FEMA withheld about $1.4 million in emergency-services funding.
Shagren said the state’s comprehensive plan is meant to cover all hazards. Lessons learned from Cascadia Rising, an earthquake and tsunami drill last summer, would apply in the event of nuclear attack.
Likewise, Seattle has eschewed nuclear-attack planning. No laws prevent the city from such planning, said Barb Graff, the city’s director of Emergency Management, but it’s just not practical.
“We could plan for nuclear attack, or Amtrak derailment or BNSF explosion, or high-rise fire — the list would be practically endless,” Graff said.
Instead, the city has an all-encompassing disaster plan called the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.
“We focus on the consequences instead of the hazard,” Graff said. “We’ll pay more attention if it (nuclear attack) becomes a more imminent threat.”
We’re not there yet.
Ellings, who lives in the Seattle area, doesn’t plan to uproot anytime soon. He views North Korea’s goal in increasing the range of its nuclear weapons more as a means to “decouple” the U.S. from its South Korean ally. He advocates for a U.S. military shift toward East Asia and to settle in for “a long-term game.”
Nelson, now 80, said expanding nuclear arsenals concern him.
He said the goal of his 1984 legislation was to focus on emergency planning for threats that were “real.”
“Now, maybe things have reverted to another, earlier concern, which is realistic in some respects,” he said. “I have doubt their missiles are going to hit us in the near future, but clearly we want to be cautious about that.”