With all the sabre-rattling of North Korea and the prospect of the waters off Guam becoming a new testing ground for its intermediate-range missiles, the people of this tiny US Pacific territory seem to be taking things in their stride. There were no signs of panic or an exodus from the island of 163,000 people on Thursday, with its wide roads clogged with commuters and commercial vehicles and shops and restaurants doing brisk trade from South Korean and Japanese tourists drawn to the island’s green hills and bright turquoise waters. Clarissa Baumgartner, a 25-year old Guam resident, said Pyongyang’s second threat in as many days to train its ballistic missiles on Guam wasn’t something she was taking too seriously.
“I’m not really too worried about it. I feel it would be a pretty stupid idea to do that,” she said. Baumgartner, a supervisor at a high end clothing store, said she was confident US forces on the island’s two bases were ready to intervene, and she bore no grudges about that military presence making Guam a North Korean target. “Definitely, I know Guam is a pretty good target because it’s important to the U.S. because of the military,” she said. “I’m pretty confident that the US will protect us. It makes me feel pretty good.” US forces on the island were not immediately available for comment.
In response to US President Donald Trump’s tough rhetoric, North Korea said on Thursday it was finalising plans to fire four intermediate range missiles that would land 30-40 km (18-25 miles) from Guam. It was not the first time Guam has been put on notice and similar threats made since 2013 led to the US military permanently deploying a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor system on the tiny island. Guam’s international airport was abuzz on Thursday with inbound tourists pushing trolleys loaded with suitcases, some of the 10,000-15,000 visitors on the island on any given day.
Japanese tourists sat outdoors in coffee shops or queued in the sun for ice cream while others perused luxury goods stores or tried on surf shorts and sunglasses.
The main beach front was busy with tourists dozing under trees or on the sun loungers of five-star hotels lined up before a calm sea where people in kayaks collided with swan-shaped pedalos and inflatable hoops. Zhao Liang, a 35-year-old bank teller from Beijing, said she won’t be cutting short her vacation over North Korea’s latest missile threats. “It’s just like setting off fireworks because most of their guided missiles just crash midway through flight,” she said.
“There’s nothing to worry about at all and we’ll just go on with our excursion and happily shop around.” Jacob Martinez, 29, a purchasing officer at a high-end hotel, said he was frustrated that Guam, an island smaller than Singapore and about 11,000 km away from the U.S. mainland, might be dragged into a major conflict. “For me because I’m a father, so it’s really concerning, you know, I wish it didn’t have to come to that,” he said.
“I wish that the superpowers of the world would be able to come out with a different way to fix their problems, you know, instead of having to involve other places that don’t even pose a threat.” Governor Eddie Calvo describes his island to those who don’t know it as a “mini Hawaii” and puts the chances of a direct missile hit at a million-to-one because of the multi layers of Pacific defences, the last being those on Guam itself.
Having experienced a Japanese invasion in World War Two and countless earthquakes and super-typhoons, there was no United States community better prepared than Guam “for any contingency”, Calvo, dressed in a light blue tropical shirt, said in an interview at his office. “We are concerned about these threats but at the same time we also want to make sure people don’t panic and go on with their lives. Enjoy the beaches,” he said.