Guam, the tiny South Pacific island that’s smaller than the city of Chicago, has been thrust into the spotlight as the dispute between the U.S. and North Korea continues to escalate. After President Donald Trump threatened to meet North Korea with “fire and fury” if it continues its nuclear weapons program, North Korea responded by threatening the island. It is the U.S. territory that is closest to Pyongyang and has been a military stronghold since the U.S. acquired it from Spain after the Spanish-American War in 1898.
After Trump’s comments, a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said on state-run television that it was going over “military options to form attack positions” around Guam to “sent a stern warning” to the U.S., reports NBC News. Late on August 9, North Korea issued another statement, calling Trump’s threat “a load of nonsense” and explaining that its plan is to launch missiles just off the coast of Guam.
The back-and-forth statements from the two countries followed a Washington Post report on a U.S. intelligence confidential assessment that concluded North Korea has made a miniaturized nuclear warhead that will fit inside its missiles.
It’s the Territory Closest to North Korea
As the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance noted in a November 2016 report, Guam is closer to North Korea than any other U.S. territory. It is 2,200 miles from North Korea. Hawaii is the closest state, but it is over 4,600 miles away from North Korea.
The Telegraph notes that North Korea is thought to have around 1,000 ballistic missiles and many of them are short-range. However, the most recent launch tests have shown that Pyongyang has missiles that can travel over 7,400 miles. That could even put London, which is 5,380 miles from the country in range. Most of the U.S., other than the Florida peninsula, is also within that range. However, successful tests have only shown a range of 2,200 miles, which puts Guam in range.
“If North Korea really decides to fire missiles at Guam, they probably will not design the missile to actually reach the territory of Guam, but just arrange missiles to blow up before they land on Guam, just to threaten the US or to show off their missile capability,” Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, told the U.K. Express. “North Korea probably is afraid of what the US would do if their missiles actually hit the US territory, because the US will not let that go.”
Guam Homeland Security spokeswoman Jenna Gaminde told USA Today that a missile launched from North Korea would take 14 minutes to reach the island. “Our office will be notified from the military and will utilize all forms of mass communication to get the message out to the public,” she said, adding that local media, mayors and social media will be enlisted to get the informaiton out.
Guam is also near another U.S. territory, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marina Islands. It is a group of 15 islands with a population of only 53,467.
Military Bases Take Up Nearly 30 Percent of Guam’s Total Land Area
One obvious reason for North Korea choosing to threaten Guam is its large U.S. military presence. Since Guam is so close to China, Japan, the Philippines and North Korea, it has remained an important territory for the U.S. military.
The island is home to U.S. Naval Base Guam and the Ordnance Annex, which is located a mile southeast of the main base. The U.S. Air Force also has Andersen Air Force Base on the island. Nearly 30 percent of the island’s total land area is under military jurisdiction.
As The Associated Press notes, the military will be relocating thousands of Marines from the base in Okinawa to Guam. Two supersonic bombers from Guam also flew over the Korean Peninsula last month.
The Guamanian economy also depends on the military. The only industry that’s more important is tourism.
Guam Has an Elected Governor & a Non-Voting Representative in Congress
Anyone born in Guam is a U.S. citizen, although they cannot vote for President and do not pay income taxes. Like Puerto Rico, Washington D.C. and other territories, it has a representative in Congress, although she cannot vote for legislation.
Madeleine Bordallo has represented the territory since 2003, after serving as Lieutenant Governor from 1995 to 2003. She was also First Lady of Guam when her late husband, Ricardo Bordallo, served as Governor from 1983 to 1987. She is a Democrat.
Guam’s elected governor is Eddie Baza Calvo, who was elected in 2011. He is a Republican.
On August 9, Calvo recorded a special address to ensure Guam’s citizens that the island isn’t under an immediate threat, although he has been in contact with federal agencies in Washington.
“An attack or threat on Guam is a threat or attack on the United States,” Calvo said. He added that he wants to remind the national media that “Guam is American soil and we have 200,000 Americans in Guam and the Marianas. We are not just a military installation.” He said they are prepared for “any eventuality.”
Guam has been part of the U.S. since 1898, after the Spanish-American War. Three days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese empire took control of the island. The U.S. took back Guam in July 1944. In 1950, it became an unincorporated U.S. territory.