Why North Korea threatened Guam, the tiny US territory with big military power

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry departing Apre Harbor, Guam, on March 6, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS) - The governor of Guam on Thursday (Aug 10) dismissed North Korea's statement that it will develop a plan by mid-August to launch missiles at the US Pacific territory as coming from "a position of fear", and said there was no heightened threat.

North Korea's state media said earlier that, under the plan to be presented to leader Kim Jong Un, four intermediate-range missiles would be fired into waters 30-40km from Guam "to signal a crucial warning to the United States".

Guam is home to about 163,000 people and a US military base that includes a submarine squadron, an air base and a Coast Guard group.

"They like to be unpredictable. They'll pop a missile off when no one is ready and they've done it quite a few times. Now they've telegraphed it," Guam Governor Eddie Calvo told Reuters in an interview on the island. "They're now telegraphing their punch, which means they don't want to have any misunderstandings. I think that's a position of fear."

He said there was some concern among the public on Guam but no panic, and the authorities were "very confident" that there was no heightened threat despite the warnings from North Korea, which were first made on Wednesday.

"There is a defence umbrella contained within South Korea, there is a defence umbrella for Japan, there are naval assets between Korea, Japan and Guam, and there is a missile defence system of Guam that make up a multi-level defensive umbrella," Mr Calvo said. "At this point, based on what facts are known, there is no need to have any concern regards heightening the threat level."

On Wednesday morning, Mr Calvo posted an address on YouTube, telling island residents not to worry. "I know we woke up to media reports of North Korea's talk of revenge on the United States and this so-called newfound technology that allows them to target Guam," the governor said. "I'm working with Homeland Security, the rear admiral and United States to ensure our safety, and I want to reassure the people of Guam that currently there is no threat to our island or the Marianas."

Noting that "Guam is American soil" and that "an attack or threat on Guam is an attack or threat on the United States", Mr Calvo said he had reached out to the White House, and that American officials have assured him that the island "will be defended".

"With that said, I want to ensure that we are prepared for any eventuality," Mr Calvo said, adding that he is convening a group "to discuss the state of readiness of our military and our local first responders".

That Mr Kim is eyeing Guam, the sovereign US territory with a strategic airfield and naval station, is no surprise to the 160,000 Guamanians on the island. "Every time there is some sabre-rattling in the part of the world, Guam is always part of the occasion," said Mr Robert Underwood, the president of the University of Guam and the island's former delegate to the House of Representatives.

"When you're from Guam and live on Guam, it's disconcerting, but not unusual," Underwood told The Washington Post.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday that Guam is in no more danger than anywhere else, adding that North Korea's threats naming the island as a target did not deter him from making a scheduled refuelling stop there on his return from Malaysia.

Still, the threat of military strikes rankled some on the island.

"I'm a little worried, a little panicked. Is this really going to happen?" Mr Cecil Chugrad, a 37-year-old bus driver for a tour bus company in Guam, told the Associated Press. "If it's just me, I don't mind, but I have to worry about my son. I feel like moving (out of Guam) now."

At about 4,000 miles (6,437km) west of Hawaii, and 2,200 miles southeast of North Korea, Guam is on the edge of US power in the Pacific. Its combined Navy and Air Force installation, Joint Region Marianas, is the home port for nuclear submarines, a contingent of Special Operations Forces and the launching point of flights for strategic bombers conducting rotational flights over Japanese territories and in the Korean Peninsula.

Guam has been a strategic lynchpin since Spain relinquished control to the US Navy following the Spanish-American War in 1898. Japanese forces sped to the island following the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941 and captured it, subjecting its people to violence that some historians estimate to have killed 10 percent of its population.

The island just celebrated its 73rd Liberation Day, commemorating the start of the US-led effort to liberate Guam on July 10, 1944, Underwood said.

Now, the island paradise relies on tourism and military activity to buoy its economy, which is marked by high unemployment.

There have been recent efforts to grant Guam more control over its government, including support from the United Nations. Guamanians cannot vote for president in the US elections, but they do vote for party delegates in primaries and have a non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives.

Mr Robert Kelly, an expert on North Korea at Pusan National University in South Korea, said the North Koreans always respond to threats with the "most outlandish rhetoric", but that Pyongyang also knows that attacking the United States would be suicidal. "They're not apocalyptic ideologues like Osama bin Laden, willing to risk everything on some suicide gamble," Mr Kelly said.

North Korea has warned of strikes against the United States before.

Last August, the country's Foreign Ministry said that all US military bases in the Pacific would "face ruin in the face of all-out and substantial attack," according to the Associated Press.

This followed a 2013 warning that Mr Kim had ordered his military to prepare plans to attack US bases in Guam, Hawaii, South Korea, and the continental United States.

Guam's growing strategic importance is due to its sovereign status, Mr Underwood said.

The United States must get clearance from ally nations like South Korea and Japan to build up its military hardware in the event of defense escalations, which can be a lengthy process. But Guam has been used to project power immediately, Mr Underwood said.

The island is also home to a terminal high-altitude area defence missile defence battery, which targets ballistic missiles. The presence of Thaad systems in South Korea has drawn consternation from Pyongyang and Beijing, which view the defensive system as an escalating presence.

A pair of B-1B Lancer bombers arrived in Guam from South Dakota this week to fly with South Korean and Japanese counterparts. That mission follows an operation over the Korean Peninsula in late July, in which the warplanes were scrambled from Guam as a response to North Korea's second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts said could have reached as far as New York.

It was unclear on Tuesday whether the Pentagon had elevated the readiness posture of its Guam-based fleet of ships and planes following the threat from North Korea. "We always maintain a high state of readiness and have the capabilities to counter any threat, to include those from North Korea," Mr Johnny Michael, a spokesman for Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, said in a statement to The Post.

The numerous installations on Guam host about 6,000 troops, a number that's growing as the United States seeks to rebalance its forces in the Pacific amid a growing reach of China's military and North Korea's increasingly sophisticated nuclear program.

In 2014, then-Deputy Defence Secretary Bob Work said 60 per cent of the Navy and 60 per cent of combat air forces would be located in the region. "Guam has always been a central part of our plans - certainly a central part of the Navy's plans but now a central part of the entire Department of Defence's plans," he said at the time.

That leaves an island of US citizens watching the news closely as posturing escalates on either side of the Pacific.

Representative Madeleine Bordallo, the island's congresswoman, said in a statement on Wednesday that "North Korea's most recent threat to target Guam is dangerous and it further heightens tensions in our region."

Mr Underwood pointed out that "most of the time the overheated rhetoric comes from North Korea. This time it's coming from the US side."

Guamanians share two common sentiments about their role in foreign policy, Mr Underwood said. Media reports focus on the importance of military installations, making locals feel like they are bit players on a large stage, he said. Others would rather shed the crosshairs.

"People say 'I hate being a target. We're the tip of the spear. Why can't we be another part of the spear?' " Mr Underwood said.

But Guam also has a proud tradition of supplying US troops, with a disproportionate number of recruits coming from there and American Samoa, Mr Underwood said.

Eighteen Guamanian troops were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, pointing to an outsized sacrifice for a territory with a population smaller than Eugene, Oregon. "We have more skin and more land in the game," Mr Underwood said.

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