Alaska's Missile Mood

Many Americans in missile range respond with a shrug

Posted: Friday, June 23, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The Alaskan coastal village of Hooper Bay is about 3,200 miles from North Korea's intercontinental missile. For some in the Bering Sea town, that's a bit too close for comfort.

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"I don't feel so remote anymore," says Elmer Simon, tribal administrator for the Yu'pik Eskimo town of 1,100.

From villages in Alaska to beaches in Hawaii and the largest cities of the West Coast, Americans in the potential range of a North Korean missile test added the threat to the list of dangers they already face in a troubled world.

Simon broached the missile issue first thing at a council meeting Tuesday to discuss solid waste options for Hooper Bay, which is slated to get piped water and a sewer system by 2014.

He's worried that even if the missile was not aimed at Hooper Bay, it might fall short if it runs out of fuel. He wonders where the rocket boosters would land.

"Salmon fishing is going on right now and on top of that there is a lot of subsistence activities going on out here. We don't need any more contamination," he said.

But for most, a missile was too distant, too unlikely a threat to interrupt the daily lives of most people.

"A better question is when's the next earthquake," Ernie De Matteis said as he flipped through a newspaper in San Francisco.

Some experts believe North Korea could be preparing to test-fire a Taepodong 2 missile with enough range to reach Alaska and parts of the U.S. mainland, depending on the size of the weapon's payload.

The missile has never been put through a test flight, and U.S. officials do not know whether North Korea is capable of putting a nuclear warhead on it. The North Korean government has claimed it has nuclear weapons, but no U.S. official has been shown conclusive proof.

Robert O'Connor, who was preparing to eat lunch with his grandchildren in the shadow of Seattle's Space Needle, isn't buying the threat.

"I don't think the United States or any of the other countries in the world are going to allow North Korea to get to a point where they've got a nuclear-tipped missile, you know, ready to fire at somebody," he said.

For Sandy Brickner, a systems security officer in Seattle, worrying about bombs is somebody else's problem.

"That's what our government is supposed to do, not me," she said. "I have no control over it."

Two U.S. guided-missile destroyers are off the Korean coast. And if a missile were to be launched toward the United States, the government could fire interceptor rockets from Alaska or California. But the missile-defense system has never had an unscripted test, and several planned tests have failed.

Off Hawaii's coast Thursday, the United States and Japan were holding a joint exercise to test their missile-destroying capabilities.

Back in Honolulu, office manager Alohalani Hose couldn't be bothered with it all.

"Why worry about that when I got my life to worry about?" she said. "If you worry, it causes stress, anxiety and you deteriorate and die. So why worry?"

Around Alaska's Fort Greely, which has nine of the interceptor rockets, folks weren't fretting either.

Pete Hallgren, city manager of nearby Delta Junction, said he and other city officials met at the base this week to discuss a construction project and the missile issue never came up.

"Nobody seemed to show any concern about the flurry of press reports about North Korea," he said. "The talk around here is the potential for the hotel, power plant and clinic."

Hallgren said it was unlikely the Koreans would target Fort Greely.

"If you have a limited number of missiles you would probably throw one at San Francisco or some other place where you could do more damage," he said. "If someone lodged a missile at Fort Greely they probably would defend it quite heavily."

Officials at bases in Alaska and California wouldn't discuss security measures, but Fort Greely spokesman Les Ozawa did say base operations remained normal.

"We haven't changed anything," he said.

It's also business as usual in Nome, a western Alaska city of 3,500.

Bruce Klein, executive director of the Nome Community Center, acknowledged his neighbors can be somewhat insulated - and that's not always a bad thing.

"If we were thinking about all this stuff and everything that's out there, and of course the situation with the missiles in North Korea, I think we would all be on Prozac," he said.

Back in Hooper Bay, city councilman Marc Cowart said even if a missile were headed to their village there's not a lot that could be done.

"There are no roads leading out of here. So we are kind of stuck," he said.



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