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Analysis

North Korean tensions put Americans on tiny Guam in crosshairs

Volunteers from the United Services Organization Guam carry a banner during Guam's annual Liberation Day Parade in Hagatna, Guam, July 21, 2017.

DANIEL WILLOUGHBY/U.S. NAVY

By NAFEESA SYEED | Bloomberg | Published: August 11, 2017

On a tiny island in the western Pacific, about 7,000 U.S. military personnel and their families are in the middle of the increasingly tense confrontation with North Korea.

Guam, an unincorporated U.S. territory, is a strategic outpost about 2,100 miles south-east of Pyongyang. That puts its total population of 170,000 in range of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles that Kim Jong Un’s regime has threatened to fire as a counter-punch to President Donald Trump’s warning that the U.S. would respond with "fire and fury" to provocative actions by North Korea.

Such threats are why the Americans are on Guam to begin with. Since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the largest and southernmost island in the Mariana Islands archipelago has been an essential part of U.S. power projection. An air base with long-range bombers and a naval base that’s home port for fast-attack submarines are among the most "strategically important" the U.S. has in the Pacific, according to the CIA World Factbook.

"We always maintain a high state of readiness and have the capabilities to counter any threat, to include those from North Korea," Marine Lt. Col. Christopher B. Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said when asked about the military’s posture on Guam.

Asked if people in Guam should be worried about North Korea’s threats, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters en route to Seattle this week, "No."

The Defense Department owns about one-quarter of Guam’s 212 square miles. At the northern end of the island, Andersen Air Force Base houses B-1 bombers as well as the Navy’s Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Twenty-five. And at the southern end, there’s the Naval Base Guam that hosts the Submarine Squadron Fifteen and the USS Frank Cable. The Navy and Air Force fall under Joint Region Marianas command.

The U.S. set up the Naval Station in Guam in 1899, designating the whole island as a base. Guam stayed under naval rule until 1950, when the Organic Act made Guam a self-governing territory of the U.S. and its residents became U.S. citizens.

Along with the U.S. personnel on the island, there are about 7,100 of their family members as well as 6,700 civilian Defense Department workers and their dependents, according to Logan.

Spain ceded Guam to the U.S. in 1898, but the Japanese seized the island in 1941. The U.S. recaptured the territory three years later. U.S. defense spending is the main economic driver of the island, making up about 40 percent of its gross domestic product, followed by tourism.

The territory has struggled economically and is known to investors for its municipal bonds, which have so far been relatively unaffected by the saber rattling between Trump and Kim.

Its population is mostly Roman Catholic and about a third are Chamorro, descendants of the indigenous people Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first encountered in 1521.

Guam has a non-voting delegate in Congress, Democratic Rep. Madeleine Bordallo who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. In a statement this week, Bordallo called North Korea’s threat to target Guam "dangerous," saying she has discussed threats with Mattis and other defense leaders, who have "consistently reassured me that Guam is protected."

"While we have heard threats like this in the past, I take them very seriously and continue to engage with our DOD partners to ensure that Guam and our people remain safe," she said, adding that Trump’s statements "concerning and unhelpful."

South Korea and Japan warned North Korea that it would face a strong response if it carried through with a threat to launch a missile toward Guam.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said there are two scenarios that could trigger war with North Korea. One is if they continue trying to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile "with a nuclear weapon on top" that is capable of striking America, the South Carolina Republican told CBS News Wednesday.

The other? "If they attack Guam or some other American interest," Graham said.

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Four B-1B Lancers assigned to the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, arrive Feb. 6, 2017, at Andersen AFB, Guam.
RICHARD P. EBENSBERGER/U.S. AIR FORCE

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