Trump and Kim Jong Un Walk into a Bar …

Vandenberg at Center of U.S. and North Korea’s Game of Nuclear Chicken

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrates with a smoke after the successful test flight of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrates with a smoke after the successful test flight of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

NUCLEAR JOKES: Why’d the nuclear chicken cross the road? Answer: To blow up the other side. Okay, maybe not the most hilarious joke I ever stole. But since last month, when North Korea strongman Kim Jong Un demonstrated he’s only a few years away from being able to hit Washington, D.C., with nuclear missiles, the whole subject has gotten a lot less funny. The best bad-news spin I’m hearing is that Kim Jong Un can only bomb the West Coast — maybe by next year. Last I looked, we still live on the West Coast. The only good news would be that a nuclear Armageddon would slow down California real estate values. In the meantime, a small handful of demonstrators congregated in front of the main gate at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) around midnight last Tuesday, August 1, to protest the nuclear tit-for-tat now taking place between the United States and the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea. At 2:10 a.m. the Minuteman III missile blasted out of Vandenberg, hauling ass through space at as much as 15,000 miles per hour to a test range near the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, 4,200 miles away.

One of the protestors was Dennis Apel, a Catholic social justice organizer from Guadalupe. Apel got out of federal prison last fall, where he served four months for having crossed Vandenberg’s green line, beyond which protestors are not allowed. That was two years ago, when Apel was observing the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States to end World War II. (By a strange coincidence, the latest Minuteman launch happened just before the world commemorated the anniversary of those attacks on August 6 and 9, respectively.) When Apel — a gentle, stubborn soul with eyes so blue they make yours water just to look at them — refused to abide by his probation terms, the federal judge slapped him upside the head with four months in the clink. When Apel wrote several dispatches from his prison cell that were then published by the Santa Barbara Independent, prison authorities quietly suggested that wasn’t a smart idea. Apel didn’t listen, so he quickly found himself charged with receiving a postcard that had methamphetamine residue on it. For this he was placed in “the hole,” known as the Special Housing Unit. There, he and another inmate shared a tiny cell with a lidless metal toilet that could be flushed only by remote control by prison guards. To get the guard to flush, Apel or his cellmate had to slip a piece of paper under the door with the word “flush” inscribed. Same for turning the lights on and off. During his two weeks in the hole, Apel, now 67, was allowed 30 minutes of exercise outside his cell just once. All this for crossing the green line at VAFB. Apel’s hearing on the meth charges had a habit of getting delayed. Naturally, he insisted. When the trial finally happened, the feds folded, and the charge was expunged before anyone had a chance to examine the nonexistent evidence. In the meantime, he spent four months behind bars and two weeks in the hole for exercising the First Amendment.

The good news is that Apel had some medical tests done while in prison. The bad news was they revealed he had prostate cancer. Surgery ensued immediately upon his release, but when the surgeon snipped things that shouldn’t have been snipped, postoperative complications developed. As a result, Apel has had various tubes inserted into his being for the past three months. At last week’s protest, Apel had been tube-free for one week. As a result, Apel seemed positively ebullient, despite the subject matter at hand — Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un playing a game of nuclear chicken. For the record, last week’s blast from Vandenberg was scheduled before North Korea showed it could hit the Midwest with its intercontinental ballistic missile.

Before we all freak out, there are certain important asterisks to keep in mind. While North Korea has the range, it still lacks the aim. And if you put a nuclear warhead on the missile, the picture gets even more complicated. The added weight of a warhead, even the smaller ones North Korea reportedly has been able to develop, makes it questionable whether or not North Korean missiles can achieve the altitudes needed to achieve the distances needed to keep us up late at night. Likewise, there’s still reason to doubt that North Korea has the capacity to land one of these things without having them blow up six to eight kilometers above the earth. And that’s assuming any incoming missiles get past American interceptor missiles launched from our bases in Alaska and Vandenberg. Either way, Apel’s point makes sense. If we find it provocative in the extreme that North Korea is testing such missiles, how has it felt for the rest of the world that we’ve been testing such missiles at least five times a year? With Trump and Kim Jong Un manning their respective doomsday switches, it’s going to take a whole lot of denial not to feel nervous. I was heartened when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he’d be willing to talk with the North Koreans, but then the very next day, Vice President Mike Pence announced there’d be no such talks. And now we have President Trump, while vacationing at his New Jersey golf club, declaring, “North Korea best not make any more threats against the United States” or “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The next day was August 9, the day we dropped the second A-bomb on Nagasaki. To paraphrase a line I stole from Satchel Paige: Don't look up; the sky may be falling.

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