Hagatna, Guam (CNN)It’s the tiny island in the eye of a geopolitical storm.
North Korea has threatened to strike Guam, a US territory in the Pacific known for its white-sand beaches, following the US President’s threat to unleash “fire and fury” against Pyongyang.
The country’s military leaders are finalizing a plan to present to Kim Jong Un in mid-August to fire four intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missiles over Japan to land less than 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the Guam, stated media reported Thursday.
For Pyongyang, Guam is seen as a prime target because it’s the closest US military presence on American soil to North Korea, and because military assets from here are sometimes deployed near the Korean Peninsula.
That proximity has long placed it in North Korea’s crosshairs, but the escalating war of words has put this territory of 160,000 civilians on edge.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t be worried because we never know if they’ll decide to follow through this time,” said Tayana Pangelinan, a resident of Dededo, the island’s most populated village.
“But, considering Guam supposedly has a massive quantity of weapons, all I can do is pray and trust all will be OK.”
Arriving on the island Wednesday, life appears to be proceeding as normal.
Asian travelers, mainly Japanese and South Koreans, are still landing at the airport and it’s tough to find a room at one of the vacation resorts dotted around the island. Tourist arrivals in July hit a record for that month.
- The tiny Pacific island, the largest in the Marianas group, is home to two significant US military bases.
- Bomber sorties flown above South Korea Tuesday originated from Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base.
- Around 5,000 US military personnel are based on the island, which is a US territory.
- It is often referred to as the “tip of the spear” and home to the US’ most westerly military installations.
- Except US bases in Japan and South Korea, it’s the closest US base to North Korea.
“Welcome to Ground Zero,” a US customs official joked on arrival, aware of the North Korean threat but laughing it off with a bit of gallows humor.
In addition to tourists, the island also hosts around 5,000 US troops at two US military bases. Dubbed the “tip of the spear,” Guam is a key to the US military’s forward deployed presence in the Pacific.
Its importance has declined since World War II, given the creation of military bases in Japan and South Korea, but analysts say it still plays an important role in the Pacific.
Confidence in military
Many locals in Guam are confident in the protection afforded by the US military.
As part of its defenses on Guam, the US installed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2013. The THAAD system is specifically designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. Also, the US routinely uses Aegis-equipped warships around the island chain of the Marianas, of which Guam is the largest.
“North Korea has a good fight on their hands if they’re going to try to mess with Guam,” said resident Andrea Salas.
However, Jeremiah Tenorio said even with the THAAD in place, he’s still concerned.
“There’s no real protection against a missile, in my opinion.”
Guam Governor Eddie Baza Calvo reassured the island’s residents that there was no change in the threat level resulting from North Korea.
He told CNN that while there was some fear, people were used to living with North Korean posturing.
However, he expressed some concern over the recent statements of some US politicians, singling out Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham.
Last week, Graham said “If there’s going to be a war to stop them, it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there, they’re not going to die here and (President Donald Trump) told me that to my face.”
Calvo suggested that this was dangerous talk.
“If there was to be conflict in this region, understand that there is an archipelago, 600 miles long called the Marianas that encompasses two US territories — Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“You’re also talking over 200,000 American citizens, civilians, that will be caught in the crosshairs.”
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