Threats rattle calm on a tiny Pa­cific is­land

Guam is no stranger to rhetoric from North Korea. But this time feels dif­fer­ent.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Matt Stiles

ASAN, Guam —– Res­i­dents on this tiny Western Pa­cific is­land, a United States ter­ri­tory that is home to strate­gi­cally im­por­tant Amer­i­can armed forces, have grown ac­cus­tomed to oc­ca­sional threats.

There are the su­per ty­phoons and the oc­ca­sional earth­quakes and tsunamis — all of which have caused real anx­i­ety here in re­cent decades.

But now there’s a specific and im­me­di­ate con­cern: North Korea, which has threat­ened to di­rect an “en­cir­cling strike” into the wa­ters around the is­land as a test­ing ground for its bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

The threat, and the rhetor­i­cal war it’s spawned with Pres­i­dent Trump in re­cent days, has prompted res­i­dents here to lose some of their is­land cool.

“Do not look at the flash or fire­ball — it can blind you,” Guam’s home­land se­cu­rity agency said in a fact sheet shared with res­i­dents Fri­day af­ter­noon.

Even be­fore the alarm­ing mes­sage, there was grow­ing con­cern across the is­land — home to 160,000 res­i­dents on a speck of earth about the size in area of Cal­i­for­nia City

(or Colum­bus, Ohio).

Take a Fri­day morn­ing news head­line: “14 MIN­UTES” — the time a pre­sumed mis­sile or mis­siles might fly from North Korea be­fore im­pact.

“Why is such a small is­land, Guam, now un­der threat?” asked Jen­ntte Jain, 22, a lo­cal who works at a beach­side mar­ket. “Why did Guam just pop up — like North Korea is go­ing to be bomb­ing? What?”

Like Jain, res­i­dents at all lev­els of so­ci­ety here have ex­pressed a mix of worry and be­muse­ment about be­ing caught in the mid­dle of North Korea’s threats, which come amid escalating ten­sions be­tween the rogue na­tion and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

“Peo­ple are wor­ried,” said R. Gary Hartz, an as­so­ciate dean of tech­nol­ogy and stu­dent ser­vices at Guam Com­mu­nity Col­lege. “Peo ple wish that there was not this kind of threat hang­ing over our heads.”

Hartz, a Ten­nessee na­tive who moved to the is­land 15 years ago, said he has con­fi­dence his fel­low Gua­ma­ni­ans would help one an­other if the worst were to oc­cur. “I try just to con­tinue to live my life,” he said. “But I’m aware of this low-level stress that’s there. You know, when you lay down on your pil­low at night, and clear thoughts from your mind? There are more thoughts to clear today than there were a month ago.”

North Korea, con­sid­ered by many se­cu­rity ex­perts and Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials to be a nu­clear state, has in re­cent months shown sig­nif­i­cant progress in its ef­fort to build bal­lis­tic mis­siles ca­pa­ble of strik­ing tar­gets out­side Asia, in­clud­ing the United States main­land.

Two re­cent in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests showed the tech­ni­cal abil­ity, in the­ory, for mis­siles to reach Alaska or the West Coast of the main­land. Th­ese de­vices flew high tra­jec­to­ries and landed in the Sea of Ja­pan.

Flat­ter flight paths could make them more threat­en­ing to ex­tended tar­gets, in­clud­ing, it now ap­pears, the area around Guam.

A new round of in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions in re­sponse to North Korea’s re­cent tests has pro­voked re­newed threats on both sides. Trump de­clared that “fire and fury” would de­scend on North Korea if it were to con­tinue to threaten the United escalating the ten­sion.

North Korea has twice said this week that it was ex­am­in­ing a plan to test­launch in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­siles to land near Guam, a first for the govern­ment. No stranger to hy­per­bolic or threat­en­ing lan­guage, North Korea used a term widely in­ter­preted as “en­velop­ing fire,” but “en­cir­cling strike” is a more ac­cu­rate trans­la­tion of what it ac­tu­ally meant — as in strik­ing with a mis­sile.

Guam, with an econ­omy that de­pends on tourism, largely from Ja­pan and South Korea, both of which also feel threat­ened by the Py­ongyang govern­ment, now finds it­self in the mid­dle af­ter U.S. bombers staged mil­i­tary ex­er­cises from here re­cently.

The ter­ri­tory’s gov­er­nor, Ed­die Baza Calvo, said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day that his ad­min­is­tra­tion has tried to re­main “cool, calm and col­lected.” He said his cit­i­zens are used to threats from nat­u­ral dis­as­ters — and can han­dle any­thing that comes their way.

“We’re very pre­pared, be­cause of Guam’s na­ture,” he said. “We’re the most pre­pared of any com­mu­nity in the United States.

“The state of threat … has not changed since the bel­li­cose state­ments of the North Korean leader,” he said.

“We are go­ing to be mak­ing ad­di­tional public out­reach plans to en­sure that the public is fully in­formed about all the con­tin­gen­cies in re­gards to any event, whether it’s a su­per ty­phoon or mil­i­tary event.”

That out­reach in­cluded the fact sheet, re­leased late Fri­day, ti­tled, “Pre­par­ing for an im­mi­nent mis­sile threat.”

The lo­cal busi­ness com­mu­nity ex­pressed con­fi­dence. In­deed, the na­tion’s air­port this week has been filled with for­eign tourists va­ca­tion­ing here.

“Guam is, and will con­tinue to be, eco­nom­i­cally sound and is a safe and pro­tected area to visit and do busi­ness,” the Guam Cham­ber of Com­merce said in a state­ment. “We en­cour­age mem­bers to stay dili­gent and make nec­es­sary pre­cau­tions as any busi­ness would to pro­tect the health and safety of its em­ploy­ees and pa­trons.”

The con­fi­dence pro­jected by lead­ers could be be­cause the threat of a di­rect mis­sile strike, and the po­ten­tially se­ri­ous U.S. re­sponse it could in­vite, re­mains re­mote.

And this isn’t Guam’s first ex­pe­ri­ence with North Korea.

In 2013, a North Korean of­fi­cial said that An­der­sen Air Force Base — a U.S. fa­cil­ity on the far north­east­ern part of the is­land that houses long-range bombers — was “within range” of its mis­siles.

North Korea has also men­tioned Guam in its state­ments re­act­ing to sanc­tions more than a decade ago.

But some­thing this time feels dif­fer­ent, some res­i­dents say. And oth­ers are even more con­cerned about what the threat says about Guam’s place in the world — and where it stands in the U.S. hi­er­ar­chy.

The small ter­ri­tory, which has a gross do­mes­tic prod­uct of about $4.5 bil­lion an­nu­ally, has an elected, non­vot­ing del­e­gate in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives but is not al­lowed to vote in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions.

Yet Trump’s fiery lan­guage — and the United States’ ro­bust mil­i­tary pres­ence here since World War II — opens it to threats like those from North Korea, how­ever re­mote.

“If Kim Jong Un said he was go­ing to hit Seat­tle or An­chor­age, and the pres­i­dent says, ‘Go ahead, and see what hap­pens,’ I think peo­ple there would be pretty up­set,” said Robert Un­der­wood, pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Guam and a former con­gres­sional del­e­gate. “When you’re a ter­ri­tory of the U.S., it just points out what your role is.”

Tassanee Vejpongsa As­so­ci­ated Press

A FAM­ILY plays in the sand this week in Ta­muning, Guam. The is­land is home to 160,000 peo­ple.

By­ton C. Lin­der AFP/Getty Im­ages

U.S. SAILORS man a mis­sile de­stroyer at the sprawl­ing naval base in Guam.

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