This morning I was assigned a piece looking at what would happen if North Korea launched a nuclear warhead at Seattle, why Seattle could be a target for such a thing, how much warning we would get and where we might want to evacuate, and whether we would all be dead anyway. But after reaching out to city and state government, as well as international relations think tanks, it doesn't look like there's much evidence at all for Seattle being on North Korea's nuclear shit list.
"No, we're not a target," a spokesperson from the state's Military Department told me on the phone this afternoon. "The media has done a good job speculating why, but nobody has ever said we are being looked at by the dictator in North Korea."
According to Scott Snyder, the Council on Foreign Relations' director of the US-Korea policy program, Seattle gets mentioned in popular discussions speculating about North Korea's nuclear capabilities because it's the closest major metropolitan area to North Korea in the continental US. But that kind of speculation tends to come from outsiders rather than the people tasked with analyzing North Korea's movements.
While North Korea hasn't threatened Seattle, it has made overtures at both Guam and Austin, Texas. Guam makes sense to some degree—it's the place where the US can launch nuclear-capable flights over North Korea to send a message about our resolve, Snyder says—but Austin is a puzzler. In 2013, North Korean state media released photos of Kim Jong Un in his war room with a "U.S. mainland strike plan" featuring Austin, Texas. The Washington Post characterized the photos as "domestic propaganda" and "almost surely a bluff." Texans simply mocked the North Korean dictator.
But that's not to say that Seattle doesn't have contingency plans in the event of a nuclear strike. Scott Thomsen, a spokesperson from Seattle City Light, walked me through what the aftermath of a nuclear strike might look like from a utilities perspective. Nuclear war, he said, would be classified as a terrorism and civil disobedience event, and City Light would follow its specialized disaster recovery plans accordingly.
Of course, Thomsen said, "The assumption here is that there is anyone left standing after the attack that you're describing."
Thomsen continued: "Given the nature of the attack that you're describing, you know, if this is Hiroshima where there's nothing left, there's nothing left and there's no one here to respond either."
A nuclear strike would differ from a disaster like an earthquake in several respects, Thomsen said. If there is anyone left standing, the Port of Seattle might become an important strategic location for the military.
Then: "In a typical event you're dealing with emergency services, hospitals, police stations, fire stations as your first set of priorities before you get down to restoration of services for businesses and residential customers," Thomsen added. But some areas might not be safe for humans to enter, given the level of radiation on the ground. City Light has protocols for mutual aid, but those might be different if aid would have to be delivered to a radioactive hot zone.
It's also likely that Seattle would get some warning for a nuclear strike if one were ever to happen. There's no magic red phone, the Washington Military Department's Karina Shagren told me, but the state is in constant communication with the Department of Defense.
Snyder, of the Council on Foreign Relations, explained that a nuclear warhead launched from North Korea would likely take 30 to 45 minutes to cross the ocean and make landfall. But US intelligence would also probably see the missile being set up on the North Korean side, which would give us additional warning time. "Previously we had weeks to watch them fuel their stationary rockets at fixed launchpads, and now we have hours because they have mobile launchers," Snyder said.
Still, US intelligence would probably have a good idea of where those mobile launchers are. And, if North Korea was going to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, the US would have the opportunity to test out its missile defense system based in Alaska. Just last month, the US Missile Defense Agency released video of the Alaska-based missile interception system blowing a fake missile shot to smithereens.
That said, "I just don't have any evidence from the North Korean side that I could point to that Seattle is any more likely a target than any other North American city," Snyder said.
Update: Dr. Halvor Undem, an affiliate professor at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and formerly a senior advisor in the National Security Directorate of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes by e-mail that there is no strategic value in North Korea launching a nuclear warhead at Seattle.
First, I will assume that what you mean by “strategic value” is a military advantage resulting from the act.
Second, there is the issue of a "pre-emptive" strike on Seattle, that is, the DPRK strikes first for some reason, versus a “reflexive” strike on Seattle, in response to a US military action taken first.
There is absolutely no rational incentive that I can think of for the DPRK to launch a preemptive military strike on Seattle. Given they actually launched a nuclear strike on Seattle, and that the missile got here, and that the warhead detonated, and that it created casualties (all by no means certain), the result would almost certainly be the annihilation of the Pyongyang Regime with either US and RoK combined conventional forces, US nuclear forces, or both.
In the second case, I still see very little strategic advantage, again in the military sense, of a DPRK reflexive nuclear strike anywhere on the US homeland. Assuming that initial US actions would be limited to conventional counterforce operations within the Korean Theatre (Guam to Japan to the Korean Peninsula), a DPRK nuclear attack, the success of which is suspect anyway, escalates the situation to the potential US response mentioned in the previous paragraph, so the strategic advantage again seems extremely doubtful to me.
There you have it.