US Politics

US island Guam stays relaxed amid North Korea nuclear standoff

August 2017: Commuters at train station in Seoul walk past a news broadcast on North Korea's threat to strike Guam with ballistic missiles. Source: AAP

What are the residents doing on the island at the target of a threatened nuclear attack? Getting on with their lives.

When North Korea last year bragged of plans to launch ballistic missiles toward Guam, residents of this relaxed American island in the western Pacific didn't seem too worried. 

Months later, and with tensions still high, they remain sanguine.

"We know that if anything was to happen, there would be a lot of efforts to keep us safe and make sure we aren't hit by anything," says Blake Bristol, manager of Mosa's Joint diner in the capital Hagatna.

Tourists at the beach in Tumon, Guam.
Tourists at the beach in Tumon, Guam.
AAP

"We are just going to hang out and enjoy the time that we have. If it happens, it happens - that's how it is."

Though Guam is US territory and home to more than 160,000 people, few Americans give the island much thought - and even fewer will ever visit. But it briefly came to prominence last year amid a flurry of North Korea weapons tests.

In a moment of red-hot tension after two intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches by Pyongyang - which prompted President Donald Trump to vow "fire and fury" in response - the North said it was considering sending missiles toward Guam.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hasn't followed through, but officials insist they could have stopped the threat -- and residents are just getting on with their lives.

"The general populace feels like they under the protection of the US government," says another local, Vincent Terlaje.

Residents have good reason to be calm - dozens of radars dot the tropical island's clifftops and nearby fields, scanning for signals and potential threats.

Guam hosts a sophisticated anti-missile system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which is designed to fire interceptors into an incoming intermediate-range rocket and pulverize the target.

"There is no better defended place to be than Guam," Navy Lieutenant Ian McConnaughey boasts as he shows reporters around Andersen Air Force Base, a sprawling facility carved from the island's dense tropical brush.

Projecting power

McConnaughey is one of more than 7,000 US military personnel stationed on Guam, which juts out of the world's deepest ocean and is part of the remote Mariana Islands chain.

Though it is located some 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) southeast of North Korea, Guam in some ways represents a front line in America's standoff with Pyongyang.

It is part of the military's gigantic Pacific Command (PACOM), a region spanning almost half the globe.

Ever since 2004, Guam has hosted at least one of the US military's three types of heavy bomber, part of the "continuous bomber presence" mission that enables the Pentagon to stage war games with regional allies - and which one day could be sent into action against North Korea.

It's business as usual in Guam - home to about 7,000 American troops and 160,000 residents.
It's business as usual in Guam - home to about 7,000 American troops and 160,000 residents.
Getty Images

Officials like to talk about Guam's importance for "projecting power" deep into the Pacific, where rivals are trying to write a narrative that Trump and his "America First" agenda mean the US no longer cares about its Pacific presence. 

General Joe Dunford - the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who recently visited the island with a group of journalists - and other US officials vehemently disagree with that assertion.

The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, shaped like a jagged boomerang, is deployed here - it can carry nuclear payloads and evade radar. 

Officials on the base wheeled out a better known plane for Dunford's inspection - the imposing B-52 Stratofortress, a Cold War behemoth that still forms part of America's bomber fleet backbone.

"We are the third generation to fly this plane, which is incredible," 28-year-old Captain Joseph Trench Niez says.

Changing calculus

With THAAD and its network of ship- and ground-based interceptors that can in theory take out an ICBM, the Pentagon says it can stop any threat from North Korea.

But America's defenses are by no means guaranteed and the calculus is always changing.

Last month, a test of a SM-3 Block IIA missile, an interceptor designed to take down an intermediate-range missile, failed for the second time in less than a year.

A large salvo of missiles could overwhelm THAAD, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo has said Kim would have the ability to send a nuclear-tipped ICBM all the way to mainland America "in a matter of a handful of months."

With Trump's unpredictable rhetoric, much of America's messaging on North Korea has fallen to the US military and the State Department.

Dunford stressed his role is to back up the "diplomatic-economic pressure campaign" against Pyongyang, being led by the State Department and US Ambassador Nikki Haley at the United Nations.

War is by no means inevitable, but should this pressure campaign fail, chilled-out places like Guam and America's other Pacific outposts could suddenly become vital command centers in a conflict.

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