The Mood On Guam After North Korean Threats

Aug 10, 2017
Originally published on August 10, 2017 9:34 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Let's get the view now from a tiny U.S. territory living under threat. The Pacific island of Guam is a potential target of North Korea, which says it's drawing up plans to fire four missiles into the waters near the island.

Guam is only 30 miles across, with a population of around 160,000 people. The island is home to both a U.S. naval base and an Air Force base. And the military calls its weapons stockpile the largest in the world. NPR's Elise Hu has just arrived on the island. Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there. Good morning.

CHANG: So I know that you just arrived, but have you gotten any sense yet of how people in Guam are reacting to the news of the last day and a half?

HU: Yeah, I've talked to tons of people, actually, in a short amount of time. And more than a few times, I've actually heard Guamanians making cracks about being annihilated, so...

CHANG: Oh, dear.

HU: ...A lot of gallows humor. Things like - I actually heard somebody just say, see you next week, if we aren't vaporized. But overall, there seem to be a lot of different moods on Guam right now. Some folks want their island-style groove. Others say they're sick and tired of the threats from North Korea. And then, others are feeling like the president of the United States is exacerbating things, and they say they're frustrated about that.

CHANG: I'm glad to hear at least some people out there are having - are able to have a sense of humor about this whole thing. I want to go to Guam's governor, Eddie Baza Calvo. He played down the threat in a video address yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDDIE CALVO: I want to reassure the people of Guam that, currently, there is no threat to our island or the Marianas.

CHANG: I mean, this isn't the first time Guam has been threatened by North Korea, right?

HU: That's exactly right. After the U.N. imposed sanctions in 2013, a North Korean spokesman said the United States is advised not to forget that our precision target tools have within their range the Andersen Air Force Base that is here on Guam. That's where a lot of bombers take off.

The difference about this threat, Ailsa, is that on the North Korean side, there is a real difference of specificity. We now know what kind of weapons they want to use, the location that they're aiming for. And beyond that, you have the American president showing a much more aggressive tenor than others in the past. So there is potential for things to escalate because there's just so much more rhetoric from both sides now, not just from North Korea.

CHANG: Guam may be a tiny island but it does have significant strategic importance, right? Can you tell us a little more about that?

HU: Yeah, somebody actually was just saying this to me. Everybody wants Guam. Japan has invaded Guam. The Spanish invaded Guam centuries ago. The U.S., you know, came here and helped assist the Guam during World War II and really helped out with the Japanese.

And a lot of locals say that that's because the U.S. wanted the land, because strategically, it's a perfect spot. There's an airbase here - a U.S. air base here - and a naval base here. And so, yeah, strategically, it's located here in the Pacific, where bombers that are stationed here can get to many locations across the Pacific very quickly across the Eastern Hemisphere.

CHANG: When I was listening to you talk just a few minutes earlier, you know, it reminded me - in the past, you have reported that residents of Seoul, South Korea - where you're based - have become sort of accustomed to living under threat from North Korea. And they don't live in a perpetual state of panic. So it sounds like you are seeing that same attitude in Guam throughout the places that you've been able to visit so far.

HU: I think that's true. Locals say they realize this is serious, but the attitude here is, if it's going to happen, it's going to happen. They told me to enjoy the sunset.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HU: This is now a situation that regular folks don't have that much control over. And another said, listen, you know, there's no point living in fear. If you live in fear, you're not living.

CHANG: That's NPR's Elise Hu joining us from the U.S. territory of Guam. Thank you so much, Elise.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.