The is­land in Kim Jong Un’s sights is a bas­tion of U.S. mil­i­tary might dan­ger­ously close to North Korea.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Laura King laura.king@la­times.com Twit­ter: @lau­rak­ingLAT

WASH­ING­TON — Af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump threat­ened nu­clear-armed North Korea with “fire and fury” — and af­ter Kim Jong Un’s her­mit king­dom replied with a bom­bas­tic warn­ing aimed at a speck of U.S. ter­ri­tory in the vast western Pa­cific — many Amer­i­cans got busy Googling “Guam.”

To the out­side world, the trop­i­cal is­land is per­haps best known as a bloody bat­tle­ground in World War II.

In sub­se­quent decades, Guam, the largest is­land in the Mar­i­ana chain, be­came an out­size bas­tion of U.S. mil­i­tary might in a re­mote but strate­gic re­gion — a role that prob­a­bly placed it in the gun sights of an er­ratic and of­ten para­noid lead­er­ship in Py­ongyang.

And at a dis­tance of about 2,100 miles, Guam lies closer to North Korea than any other U.S. ter­ri­tory.

For the is­land’s 160,000plus in­hab­i­tants — who awoke Wed­nes­day to news of the North Korean mil­i­tary’s an­nounce­ment that it was weigh­ing op­er­a­tional plans for a bal­lis­tic-mis­sile strike on Guam — it was a jolt­ing switch from con­cerns like the lo­cal scuba-div­ing con­di­tions, a bird pop­u­la­tion be­set by in­va­sive tree snakes and warn­ings of the ills of chew­ing be­tel nuts.

Na­tive-born Gua­ma­ni­ans are U.S. cit­i­zens by birth, and the is­land’s gov­er­nor, Ed­die Baza Calvo, took to YouTube early Wed­nes­day to in­form con­stituents that he had been as­sured by the White House that Guam would be de­fended as if it were the U.S. main­land should North Korea try to strike.

“This is not the time to panic,” he told re­porters. “There have been many state­ments out there that have been made by a very bel­li­cose leader, but at this point there’s been no change in the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion here on Guam.”

More re­as­sur­ance came from Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, who ar­rived on a pre­vi­ously sched­uled re­fu­el­ing hours af­ter the lat­est North Korean threat while en route home from di­plo­matic stops in South­east Asia.

De­clin­ing to echo Trump’s bel­liger­ent tone, he played down the prospect of any im­me­di­ate con­cerns that Kim would lash out at the is­land and said Amer­i­cans “should sleep well at night.”

It wasn’t the first time the is­land has been on the re­ceiv­ing end of Py­ongyang’s threats. There was sim­i­larly omi­nous talk from North Korea in 2013, mak­ing spe­cific note that Guam’s sprawl­ing An­der­sen Air Force Base, among other Pa­cific ter­ri­to­ries, lay within tar­get range.

Still, many res­i­dents were wor­ried about the un­pre­dictabil­ity of North Korea’s leader, and by the warn­ings of “en­velop­ing fire” em­a­nat­ing from Kim’s cap­i­tal.

“It’s kind of scary, be­cause we don’t know what this guy is ca­pa­ble of,” Rudy Matanane, the mayor of the town of Yigo, which lies close to An­der­sen, told the Pa­cific Daily News. “I hope our mother coun­try does what’s right for us.”

For a place only about the size of Chicago, Guam is home to a good deal of heavy fire­power, with the U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence tak­ing up nearly one-third of its ter­ri­tory and some 7,000 troops sta­tioned across the is­land.

In ad­di­tion to An­der­sen, whose air­borne ar­se­nal in­cludes B-52 bombers, mil­i­tary venues in­clude Naval Base Guam, op­er­at­ing nu­clear sub­marines and a U.S. Coast Guard sta­tion.

The 212-square-mile is­land, some­times likened by mil­i­tary of­fi­cials to a per­ma­nent air­craft car­rier, is also shielded from bal­lis­tic mis­siles — at least in the­ory — by the Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fense, or THAAD, sim­i­lar to the one the U.S. is in the process of de­ploy­ing, con­tro­ver­sially, in South Korea.

Not un­usual for a small, con­tained ter­ri­tory with a large mil­i­tary pres­ence, there are oc­ca­sional ten­sions be­tween Guam’s civil­ian pop­u­la­tion and what can seem an over­ween­ing out­side power. But the big U.S. de­ploy­ment, to­gether with tourism, is the is­land’s eco­nomic life­line, and Guam res­i­dents join the mil­i­tary in dis­pro­por­tion­ately large num­bers.

Though tiny, Guam has wit­nessed some dra­matic his­tor­i­cal up­heaval.

Por­tuguese ex­plorer Fer­di­nand Mag­el­lan, on his way around the world at the be­hest of the Span­ish king, ar­rived in 1521, set­ting the stage for three cen­turies of Span­ish colo­nial rule, the rem­nants of which can be seen in a scat­ter­ing of land­mark forts, palaces and churches.

As was the case in so many colo­nial out­posts, con­tact with Western pow­ers came at a ter­ri­ble cost to the is­land’s in­dige­nous peo­ple. Smallpox burned a hellish path through the na­tive Chamorro pop­u­la­tion, punc­tu­ated by nat­u­ral dis­as­ters like ty­phoons and earth­quakes. But Chamor­ros re­main the largest eth­nic group in Guam to­day and have man­aged to keep their na­tive lan­guage alive, us­ing it along­side English.

Ceded to the United States at the close of the 19th cen­tury, Guam and its peo­ple fell cap­tive to the Ja­panese soon af­ter the Pearl Har­bor at­tack in Hawaii in 1941, en­dur­ing more than two years of night­mar­ish oc­cu­pa­tion. Five years af­ter the war’s end, the is­land be­came an un­in­cor­po­rated U.S. ter­ri­tory, by act of Congress.

Guam’s res­i­dents can’t vote in U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, giv­ing rise to some tart so­cial-me­dia com­men­tary about how they did not elect Trump.

The ter­ri­tory’s non­vot­ing con­gres­sional del­e­gate, Demo­crat Madeleine Z. Bordallo, put out a state­ment urg­ing the pres­i­dent to show “steady lead­er­ship” in deal­ing with North Korea.

Jef­frey Landis U.S. Naval Base Guam

U.S. NAVAL BASE GUAM is shown in March 2016. The U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence takes up nearly one-third of the Pa­cific is­land that is about the size of Chicago.

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