HAGATNA, Guam (AP) – North Korea has announced a detailed plan to launch a salvo of ballistic missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, a major military hub and home to U.S. bombers. If carried out, it would be the North’s most provocative missile launch to date.
Here’s a closer look at Guam and its role in the U.S. and North Korea’s ongoing war of words.
Senior U.S. national security officials said Sunday that a military confrontation with North Korea’s is not imminent, but they cautioned that the possibility of war is greater than it was a decade ago.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, tried to provide assurances that a conflict is avoidable, while also supporting Trump’s tough talk. They said the United States and its allies no longer can afford to stand by as North Korea pushes ahead with the development of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
“We’re not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago,” McMaster said, adding that the Trump administration is prepared to deal militarily with North Korea if necessary.
But he stressed that the U.S. is pursuing “a very determined diplomatic effort” led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that’s coupled with new financial sanctions to dissuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un from further provocations.
The strip of land in the western Pacific Ocean is roughly the size of Chicago, and it’s just 4 miles (6 km) wide at its narrowest point. It is about 2,200 miles (3,500 km) southeast of North Korea, much closer than it is to any of the United States. Hawaii is about 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to the east. Its proximity to China, Japan, the Philippines and the Korean Peninsula has long made the island an essential possession of the U.S. military.
Guam was claimed by Spain in 1565 and became a U.S. territory in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Japan seized it for about 2Â½ years during World War II. In 1950, an act of Congress made it an unincorporated organized territory of the United States. It has limited self-government, with a popularly elected governor, small legislature and non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. Residents do not pay U.S. income taxes or vote in the general election for U.S. president. Its natives are U.S. citizens by birth.
The U.S. keeps a Naval base and Coast Guard station in the south and an Air Force base in the north that saw heavy use during the Vietnam War. While already taking up 30 percent of the island, the American military has been seeking to increase its presence by relocating to Guam thousands of Marines who are currently based in Okinawa, Japan. Protecting the island is the U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which is used to shoot down ballistic missiles. While there has been some resistance and displeasure from the people of Guam over the U.S. military’s presence, it is also essential to the island’s economy, second only to tourism in importance.
PEOPLE AND GOVERNMENT
The island was first populated about 4,000 years ago by the ancestors of the Chamorros, still the island’s largest ethnic group. Now, about 160,000 people live on Guam. Its capital city is Hagatna and its largest city is Dededo. Its chief languages are English and Chamorro. It has seen various popular movements pushing for greater self-government or even U.S. statehood, most notably a significant but failed effort in the 1980s to make it a commonwealth on par with Puerto Rico.
MILITARY INSTALLATIONS AND THIER SIGNIFICANCE
There are two major bases on Guam: Andersen Air Force Base in the north and Naval Base Guam in the south. They are both managed under Joint Base Marianas. The tourist district of Tumon, home to many of Guam’s hotels and resorts, is in between. The air base was built in 1944, when the U.S. was preparing to send bombers to Japan during World War II. Today, Naval Base Guam is the home port for four nuclear-powered fast attack submarines and two submarine tenders. Andersen Air Force Base hosts a Navy helicopter squadron and Air Force bombers that rotate to Guam from the U.S. mainland. It has two 2-mile (3-kilometer) -long runways and large fuel and munitions storage facilities. Altogether, 7,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed on Guam.
GUAM AND NORTH KOREAN THREAT
The U.S. military began rotating bombers – the B-2 stealth bomber as well as the B-1 and B-52 – to Andersen in 2004. It did so to compensate for U.S. forces diverted from other bases in the Asia-Pacific region to fight in the Middle East. The rotations also came as North Korea increasingly upped the ante in the standoff over its development of nuclear weapons. In 2013, the Army sent the THAAD missile defense system to Guam. A THAAD battery includes a truck-mounted launcher, tracking radar, interceptor missiles and an integrated fire-control system.