August 19, 2019

In Hiroshima, thinking of North Korea

I spent my birthday in Hiroshima.

We didn’t plan it that way, it’s just where we happened to end up in the midst of a summer trip to Japan. It didn’t occur to me what it would mean, or how I would feel, to be celebrating my birthday in a restaurant at the foot of the Aioi Bridge.

The Enola Gay was aiming to drop Little Boy above the bridge, but missed by 800 feet. Instead, the world’s first atomic bomb used in combat exploded 1,900 feet over Shima Surgical Clinic on Aug. 6, 1945.

From Caffe Ponte, where we chased our pizza Margherita with sake shots, we could see the shattered remains of what had been the city’s Product Exhibition Hall, its skeleton now preserved as a memorial.

It wasn’t hard for me to imagine what the rest of Hiroshima looked like that day, because that afternoon we had visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

In a flash, the city was obliterated. About 150,000 people died, many in that instant, more from injuries and radiation poisoning. For miles around, the Exhibition Hall was one of only a few buildings left standing.

Left: Hiroshima, Japan, after the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the city, August 5, 1945. The standing building is now preserved as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Right: Genbaku Dome was the only building left standing near the hypocenter of the A-bomb’s blast. Every year, thousands gather at the iconic dome, now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Photo by Rob Eshman

If you’ve been to Holocaust museums and memorials, you’ll feel a sense of déjà vu visiting the one in Hiroshima. Yes, of course, the circumstances of destruction couldn’t be more different. But even so, we have a limited vocabulary for recalling carnage.

There are the relics of dead children — a charred tricycle, which a grief-stricken father buried alongside his 2-year-old son killed in the attack. There are the photos — of the fireball, of blackened bodies, of huddled survivors. There are the video testimonies of survivors — the woman who woke from a blinding flash to find her house had disappeared around her, leaving only her son and daughter behind, both dead. There is an Anne Frank whom kids can relate to — Sadako Sasaki, a girl whose diary became the basis for the book “One Thousand Paper Cranes.”

And there is the abiding theme of “Never Again,” in this case framed as an emphasis on nuclear disarmament.

But for humans, “Never Again” turns out to be a difficult ask.

Since the Holocaust, there have been many genocides. And 72 years after Hiroshima, the world is again on the brink of a potential nuclear conflict. Japan, hard as it is to believe, is again a potential ground zero.

Just as we were leaving Japan, on July 4, North Korea launched a KN-17 liquid-fueled missile that landed in the Sea of Japan, in the country’s exclusive economic zone where fishing and commercial vessels are active.

It was that nation’s first successful flight of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as North America. Experts say North Korea, which already has eight to 10 nuclear bombs, is a couple of years away from developing the technology to fit them on a warhead that could reach us. No one wants North Korea President Kim Jong Un to be able to do that.

“What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it’s been memory,” John Hersey wrote. “The memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”

Hersey traveled the desolate city shortly after we dropped the bomb; his reporting became the basis for his masterful book, “Hiroshima.”

But he’s wrong, unfortunately. Of all the tools President Donald Trump has at his disposal to control North Korea’s weapons, sending Kim Jong Un to the Peace Museum may be the least effective.

A lone floutist plays on the banks of the Ota River, just at the foot of the Aioi Bridge, the initial target of the first atomic bomb.  Across from him is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  Video by Rob Eshman

As the Journal reported in a 2014 cover story, the concentration camps President Kim maintains around North Korea — where tens of thousands of dissidents are tortured, abused and executed — are not the work of a man who cares about anything but his own individual survival. His murder of Otto Warmbier last month is yet another demonstration of Kim’s insolent evil.

But what to do? If you haven’t read or heard any of the hundreds of pundits and experts weighing in on North Korea, let me cut to the chase: There’s no good option. That’s what they all conclude.

The three bad options are: 1) a preemptive strike obliterating the country’s weapons of mass destruction and taking out the regime; 2) a smaller “warning” strike; 3) more diplomacy and sanctions, to induce the Supreme Leader to compromise.

After running through the scenarios, all but a handful of experts end up on No. 3. Military options would provoke North Korea into launching devastating attacks on Japan and South Korea. Casualties could reach a million. I’m no expert, but I’ve now seen Tokyo at rush hour. It’s what they call a target-rich environment.

Little Boy was highly ineffective, using only 1.7 percent of its fissionable material. The power and number of bombs we have today would make the Korean Peninsula and Japan look like one endless Hiroshima.

If the people of Hiroshima were concerned about North Korea’s newest provocation — or the fact that their fate is in the hands of Donald Trump — they didn’t show it. The city thrums with energy. The malls are packed. Buzzed salarymen stroll from bar to bar, lovers embrace by the riverbanks, cars stream toward Mazda Stadium to see the Carp play another baseball game, and tourists line up for the famous okonomiyaki noodle cakes. It’s a river-crossed Phoenix of a city.

We crossed the Aioi Bridge on the way back from dinner, stopping at a memorial for the thousands of children killed in the blast. Never again? We’ll see.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.