Guam: paradise threatened with fire and fury
Guam has been dragged into the war of words between the USA and North Korea, after the latter threatened to attack the tiny American territory. Is military conflict about to break out?
The Pacific island of Guam is a land of lush jungle and clear beaches; over a million tourists come every year. Normally, its relaxed way of life is only disturbed by the odd typhoon.
But this week is different. Yesterday, the 160,000 islanders awoke to the news that North Korea wants to attack them. The rogue nation had declared that it was “carefully examining” a plan to create an “enveloping fire” around the island using ballistic missiles.
The announcement capped a period of escalating tensions between North Korea and the USA. Last weekend, the UN imposed new economic sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s regime; days later, US media reported that it is ready to fire nuclear missiles.
In response, President Trump warned that threats to the USA would be met “with fire and fury”. Then North Korea threatened to strike Guam.
Though small, Guam is no stranger to big conflicts. Its strategic position between East Asia and the Americas has put it in the firing line before. After Spain ceded the island to the USA in 1898, it became an important military hub. It played a key role in the second world war (when it was briefly occupied by Japan) and the Vietnam war.
Currently, almost a third of the island is covered by US military bases, including an airfield and a naval station. It shelters nuclear submarines and bombers which carry out regular air drills near the Korean peninsula. It is also home to the THAAD system, which can shoot down North Korea’s missiles.
For these reasons, the country has long seen Guam as a menace. There are parallels with Pearl Harbour, the Hawaiian naval base targeted by the Japanese air force in a surprise attack in 1941. That strike led to war between Japan and the USA.
For now, Guam is safe. Many are taking North Korea’s announcement as just more hot air from the regime. “Currently there is no threat to our island,” said Eddie Calvo, the island’s governor. But he warned that an attack on Guam is an attack on the USA, and added that “we are prepared for any eventuality”.
What is the worst that could happen?
This is worrying, say some. If the reports are true, North Korea has developed nuclear missiles much earlier than expected. That alone is a game changer. Even worse, we now have a president who uses very inflammatory language. Trump’s words could push North Korea to act on its threat. The third world war may start in Guam.
Calm down, reply others. While Trump mouths off, his people are conducting diplomacy as usual. Just last week, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, told North Korea: “We are not your enemy.” Everyone, Kim included, knows that war would benefit no one. This is why the Guamanians are not too worried.
- How would you feel today if you were living in Guam?
- Should Kim Jong-un be taken seriously?
- Read about Guam’s legends in Become An Expert. Choose one and rewrite it, setting it in your area in the modern day.
- Write a two-page essay answering the question “Has Guam benefited from being a part of the USA?” Make sure to support your argument with facts and historical comparisons.
Some People Say...
“All wars start from a single point.”
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Q & A
- What do we know?
- North Korea has conducted five successful nuclear tests — the first in 2006, the latest last September. It has also launched a number of missiles, including far-reaching intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). According to a recent assessment by the US intelligence community, the regime has now put the two together, and developed a nuclear warhead small enough to fit inside a missile.
- What do we not know?
- North Korea’s military arsenal is shrouded in secrecy. The country is thought to possess between a dozen and 60 nuclear bombs. We are not sure how far its ICBMs could reach, although experts fear that they could make it to the East Coast of the USA. Whether they could actually carry a nuclear weapon remains unclear — the assessment mentioned above is not confirmed.
- Ballistic missiles
- Largely unguided missiles that follow a big arc through the sky before falling to earth and exploding. North Korea is thought to have around a 1,000 such missiles, most of which are only short-range. Some, however, can potentially strike mainland USA. See Q&A.
- Economic sanctions
- The UN Security Council — including North Korea’s closest ally China — voted to ban certain imports from the country. The sanctions are supposed to cut its export revenue by a third. See North Korean Economy Watch’s article in Become An Expert.
- Guam’s surface is 209 square miles — a little smaller than Chicago.
- Guam is now an “unincorporated territory” of the USA. It has a delegate in Congress and its people are American citizens, but they cannot vote for the president.
- Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.
- Surprise attack
- On December 7th 1941, the Japanese launched a strike that killed 2,300 Americans; it also damaged or destroyed two dozen ships and 300 aircraft. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy”.