In the morning of Aug. 9, Guam woke up to the news that North Korea was threatening to fire ballistic missiles aimed at waters surrounding the island. Right. We’ve heard it before. Guam residents waved it off and went about their daily business as usual.
Gov. Eddie Calvo advised the people to “go to the beach and live your lives.” Which didn’t mean “enjoy your last days on earth;” rather, it was meant to build reassurance that Guam didn’t have anything to worry about. No one really seemed worried, anyway.
“What is there is to be scared of? The people of Guam have already been very exposed to radiation due to nuclear fallout from 1946 to 1962 when the U.S. detonated 66 nuclear bombs in Marshall Islands,” said Robert Celestial, president of the Pacific Association of Radiation Survivors.
Kim Jong-un’s renewed threat was in response to President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” warning should Pyongyang persisted in threatening the United States.
“Panic? Not from North Korea. The only time I was really afraid was after 9/11, but that wasn't a threat. That was an all-out attack,” said Jacqueline Guzman, 39, a graduate student and resident of Maite.
Outsiders were perplexed by Guam’s seeming nonchalance. How could a tiny community trapped in this perpetual threat of annihilation be so utterly calm? Such an attitude could of course be partly attributed to Guam’s faith. The island is predominantly Catholic, whose faith is marked by wry fatalism.
“If it’s our time to die, it’s our time to die and the Lord knows when. Our Mother Mary and the Lord will guide us and protect us all the time,” Tamuning resident Cita Manjaras said, emerging from a Sunday prayer rally at the Plaza de Espana in Hagtana.
Liberty Daquel, also of Tamuning, chimed in, “We have trust in the Lord that he will save us. I just pray and pray.”
Being in the path of natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes, Guam is pretty much in a perpetual state of emergency. Urban planners and engineers have designed buildings and houses, with six inches of concrete wall and reinforcement bars, that can withstand the strongest hurricane. The island has been battered by fierce storms many times, the most devastating of which were typhoon Paka which plowed through in 1997, and Pongsona in 2002. Many even bigger typhoons preceded them over the years. Through all this, islanders have learned to deal with nature’s wrath.
“We have a lot of practice here; most of it has been made by nature’s disasters and now some of the threats made by a gentleman in North Korea. We are as prepared as any American community for a potential crisis,” Calvo said.
Perhaps, Guam has gotten used to being referred to as the “tip of the military spear,” and with that comes the recognition that, as the nation’s platform to project its power in Asia, the island is a natural recipient of threats, if not an actual target of possible aggression. Kim Jong-un first made the threat against Guam in 2013; his sabre rattling has since become a habit. On Aug. 8, Pyongyang threatened to strike the waters near Guam with four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
“There have been increased measures in terms of preparedness, in terms of coordination and cooperation between the local government and the military in regards to pre-event, event and post event,” Calvo told a press briefing. “Because of what happened since 9/11 and (Pyongyang’s threats) in 2013, there has been honing of the skills of the agencies to ensure that we are on the same page.”
The supposed mid-August doomsday didn’t come about. The crisis fizzled out. But even after Pyongyang’s threats proved to be a dud, mutual displays of power continued days later.
The U.S. Navy announced the success of the test firing of the Harpoon Block 1C frm the Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado (LCS 4), striking a surface target at a significant distance beyond the ship's visual range. “LCS will play an important role in protecting shipping and vital U.S. interests in the maritime crossroads," said Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson, commander, Task Force 73. "Its ability to pair unmanned vehicles like Fire Scout with Harpoon missiles to strike from the littoral shallows matters - there are over 50,000 islands in the arc from the Philippines to India; those shallow crossroads are vital world interests.”
Toward the end of August, the U.S. Pacific Command detected and tracked three short-range ballistic missile launchings from North Korea's east coast. Commander Dave Benham said the first and third missiles failed in flight, while the second missile appears to have blown up almost immediately. A statement from the South Korean military said the missiles blasted off from a coastal launching site and flew about 155 miles to the northeast before falling into the sea.
“Although the launches were no threat to Guam, it reminds us that we cannot be complacent,” said George Charfauros, Guam Homeland Security advisor. “We place confidence in our U.S. Department of Defense capabilities and continue open communications with our federal and military partners.”
The U.S. military maintains shorter-range defenses such as the land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, on Guam. The U.S. Navy has Aegis SM-3 missiles, which officials say can knock out medium and intermediate-range North Korean missiles, and if given enough satellite warning, could attack North Korea's ICBM warheads.
“When you’re a colony, you’re easy meat,” said Julian Aguon, a lawyer, who has been involved with Guam’s decolonization movement. “It’s so easy for people in the continental U.S. to make a decision for our island because the bombs are not falling in their direction. There is a huge distance between those who make decisions and those who will suffer the consequences of those decisions. This raises a host of issues about the hazards of hyper-militarization.”
Former Guam Speaker Judi Won Pat deplores the island’s default role as a pawn in geopolitics. “We are caught in the middle of something that is nothing of our doing,” she said. “We have two powers, two presidents, who somehow do not stop to think what they are saying.”
Being the “tip of military spear” is a double-edged sword—so to speak. Some residents are burdened with ambiguous sentiments toward the presence of military installations on the island.
“On one end, I feel a sense of security with the US military being here; on the opposite end I have a sense of being scared and being fearful because you just don’t know what in return they will support our community with. We do not want to be bystanders of war,” said textile artist Joseph Certeza, 27. “We do not believe that war is the answer to anything. We don’t want to see war birds in our skies; we want to see our own native birds.”