Surviving the North Korean Nuclear Threat

North Korea is really rattling its cage, threatening -- or perhaps promising -- to send atom bomb-tipped missiles toward the American territory of Guam. They are also making a follow-up threat of launching nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at the western United States -- including Hawaii and Alaska -- as well as states along the Pacific Coast -- Washington, Oregon, and California, along with Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho and perhaps even parts of Rocky Mountain states.

The “iffy” quality of these threats is based on the relatively poor performance during tests of Korean war rockets. For instance, North Korea -- when threatening Guam -- said they would send missiles to detonate within 17 miles of Guam, suggesting that their accuracy is, by U.S. and Russian standards, pathetic. The small nuclear bomb their Hwasong-12 rockets are able to carry, when detonating 17 miles from Guam, will cause relatively little damage to the island. However, if one of those missiles landed close to Anderson AFB, one of the other American bases on Guam or on the island’s capital city, Hagåtña -- known to Americans as Agana -- casualties would reach the tens of thousands.

However, if the North Koreans’ new ICBM -- the Taepodong-2, with a reported range of more than 6,000 miles, becomes war-capable -- and it has a way to go before that can be proven -- it might put cities as far east as Denver and Chicago at risk of a nuclear strike. The nuclear bomb it could carry would be small -- very likely smaller than the bomb which vaporized much of Hiroshima -- but even a small nuke would make the 9/11/2001 terror attack look like a walk in the park.

What can you do, especially if you fear that your city might be targeted? There are preparations you can make -- if you survive the initial blast -- to survive until help arrives. Any atomic attack will create devastation on a Katrina-on-steroids level, which means that relief for the surviving victims could take thirty days to arrive and become operational. So -- assuming the missile’s blast doesn’t kill you -- how do you survive for thirty days?

This question has specific meaning for the two of us, since Las Vegas’s Nellis Air Force Base is not only the largest military air base on earth, but it is home to a “bunker farm” that houses one-third of all American nuclear weapons. However, most major U.S. cities host vital military facilities -- and even those which don’t aren’t safe, as the North Koreans consider civilians to be a legitimate target.

There are two answers to this question, and to understand them, consider Katrina.

First, if you’re very close to the blast site -- not close enough to be killed or to suffer debilitating injuries, but close enough to make staying until help arrives impossible, you need to be ready to flee. In the Katrina example, the flooding of New Orleans demanded an evacuation -- you cannot live for long with your house flooded, the roads flooded, and desperate people looking to loot anyone who has the wherewithal for survival.

However, if you’re far enough from the blast site to avoid potentially-deadly radiation, you might do better to remain until help arrives. Again looking to Katrina, this applied to people outside the flood zone, whose houses remained intact, even while road-access remained iffy.

If you have to Get Out Of Dodge (GOOD), you’ll need the following:

  1. A 72-hour survival kit that contains potable water at a rate of a gallon per person per day, a three-day supply of non-perishable food, along with basic living supplies, from tents and sleeping bags to fire-starters and first-aid kits.
  2. A reliable car large enough to hold your family and all your survival supplies. It may seem odd, but an older car might be more survivable, because a nuclear blast creates an electromagnetic pulse -- an EMP -- that can fry anything related to computers, including the digital systems that make modern cars work.
  3. An evacuation destination -- a FEMA-supported shelter or friends/relatives living outside the blast zone who you can stay with -- along with plans on finding alternate-route roads that haven’t been either destroyed or blocked by a tidal wave of cars trying to flee the scene.
  4. Self-defense weapons -- if you have something that will help you survive, those with less foresight might want to take that away from you. Not all looters will be “criminals” -- some might be desperate fathers trying to feed, clothe and water their families. However, in an us-vs.-them scenario, the right to self-defense remains. If you’re prepared, with weapons you know how to use, your chance of survival as society breaks down increases.

In this scenario, you only need to survive until you can reach a Federally-supported disaster-relief shelter location or friends/family who live outside the blast zone and are prepared to offer you long-term shelter.

However, what do you do if you are far enough from ground-zero to have an intact home and at least marginal support from society? Simply put, you’ll survive for as long as your pre-disaster preparation remains intact, and as long as you’re able to defend what’s yours against the ill-prepared who will do anything to survive -- including seizing what’s rightfully yours. It’s easy to think of these people as murderous criminals, but many might be parents desperate to keep their children alive. That makes their actions “understandable,” but in an us vs. them situation, nobody is really entitled to strip you of your ability to survive, no matter what their justification.

This question also applies if you’re not in a position to evacuate. An example of not being able to flee was the 500-year snowstorm -- 56 inches fell in two days -- that hit Flagstaff in January of 1997. Trapped in the middle of the storm, with water but no food in an unfurnished efficiency apartment we’d moved into the night before the storm hit, we found that some important local businesses remained open. A Burger King, of all things, remained open even while the roads were closed, providing “all-American” sustenance. A K-mart within walking distance not only remained open, they had chains that would fit our two cars. We were luckier than people stranded on 1-17 in cars literally buried under the snow. It took the National Guard using heat-sensing devices in their helicopters to ID the buried cars, and ground troops in all-terrain vehicles to rescue people who had no idea that they were driving into a nightmare.

However, if you have the option to safely stay where you are, you’ll need everything in the GOOD kit, along with the following.

a. Self-defense. In a car, on the move, handguns make sense as self-defense weapons. However, in a stationary “target,” you may need something with longer range. A short-barreled pump shotgun is an obvious choice, both because what it hits stays down, but also because of the fear factor -- no sane person wants to face down a shotgun. Another option is a light rifle with a telescopic sight. Even a relatively puny .22-caliber rifle provides effective defense out to 100 yards, but a Ruger Mini-14, or any other carbine-length that shoots .223-caliber rounds, is a slam-dunk winner. With little recoil and an effective combat-tested round, these rifles will provide effective self-defense out to a couple hundred yards.

b. Getting more prosaic, you’ll need a source of potable water that will support you and your family for 30 days, until disaster relief experts restore the water supply.

c. A Sterno or propane camp-stove that will allow you to warm up your Meals-Ready-to-Eat, the replacement for the army’s venerable C-Rations -- or any other long-term storable food.

d. Batteries, solar cells, or other sources of electricity are necessary while the grid is down. To go with that include flashlights, a battery-powered or hand-cranked radio -- the best survival radio gets AM, FM and short-wave.

e. A first-aid kit that will help support you and your family from both injuries received in the blast and health needs during the rugged long-term survival life as you wait for FEMA and the National Guard to bring safety to you. Don’t forget the medications you normally take. Multiple vitamins are also a good idea as meals may be less than ideal.

f. Sanitary supplies -- toilet paper, wet-wipes, diapers, feminine hygiene supplies -- whatever your family will need to handle sanitation issues until the water and sewer systems are back in action.

Be prepared -- that’s not just for Boy Scouts. If you have a serious concern about the possibility of being too close to a North Korean nuclear strike -- and given the sanity of Kim Jong Un, everybody west of Chicago ought to be paying attention -- you need to practice. Put together your 72-hour kit, then practice both the evacuation and living “rough” for three full days. Then consider the 30-day survival issue, buy your supplies then live on the edge for 30 days.

Sure, you’ll go to work and the kids will go to school, just like always, but when you’re home, you drink bottled water, you eat MREs, you practice “field sanitation” and -- bottom line -- you make sure that your survival plan is real, and really effective.

With those preparations, you can vastly improve your potential for survival in the case of a North Korean nuclear strike that wasn’t close enough to kill you, but which was close enough for you to have to fight to survive. Good luck, and we’ll see you on the other side.

Dianne Bilderback and Ned Barnett are currently working on a book focusing on surviving a Katrina-level event, focusing on the first 30 days -- typically, books on survival either focus on the first 72 hours or on a total societal collapse. They can be reached at or