The tiny Pacific island of Guam is caught in the crossfire of a war of words between two nuclear powers -- one vowing “fire and fury,” and the other warning that its plan of attack will be finalized within a week.
While the saber-rattling from both Washington and Pyongyang seems to grow more intense with each passing day, the governor of the strategically important U.S. territory is downplaying the risk of a military clash. In fact, Eddie Baza Calvo said the level of threat posed by North Korea has remained unchanged amid the barrage of missile tests, military exercises, threats and tweets.
“There is no heightened threat level at this point,” he told CTV News Channel. “There is no panic. This is not the first threat made by North Korea of an attack on Guam.”
The governor said the reclusive communist nation has long recognized Guam’s role as a key launch pad for U.S. forces. There are about 7,000 U.S. troops on the island’s two military bases, Andersen Air Force Base in the north and Naval Base Guam in the south.
Anderson Air Force base houses Navy helicopters as well as stealth and heavy bombers. Naval Base Guam is a key centre for intelligence gathering in the region and an outpost for U.S. fast-attack nuclear submarines.
Calvo said direct threats against those vast military installations date back to 2013. Since then, he counts “three or four” times when attacking Guam was mentioned as a means to target the west.
The latest salvo came from Gen. Kim Rak Gyom, who heads North Korea’s rocket command on Wednesday. In a statement carried by his country’s state media, he vowed to finalize a plan to fire four mid-range missiles in the waters off Guam’s coast by mid-August.
Gyom’s statement also referred to U.S. President Donald Trump as “a guy bereft of reason” and said “only absolute force can work on him.”
Those remarks came on the heels of U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat that any acts of aggression by the regime would be met with “fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
Earlier this week, reports suggested that North Korea has successfully produced miniaturized nuclear warheads that can fit inside its missiles.
Guam is a logical choice for a first strike, according to Carl Schuster, the former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Centre. But he said a physical attack against the U.S. military hub, and the backlash that would follow, does not serve the interests of the young North Korean leader of the past six years.
“From Kim Jong-un’s perspective, it (Guam) is a power centre that is U.S. owned that he believes he can reach,” Schuster said. “He is not going to take action that unifies us in taking action against him.”
The whole showdown with Trump, in his estimation, is likely ploy to score political points at home and abroad -- appearing strong to North Koreans while heightening fear within the international community that Trump could trigger an all-out nuclear war.
“Traditionally when the regime has gone aggressive in terms of misbehavior and rhetoric, the west has gone to great lengths to appease them and reward them. The result is he has entered into a calculation where he has to appear strong, but also he has to act in ways that continue to divide the opposition, rather than go too far and unify them,” Schuster said.
Calvo said Guam’s tight-knit ties to the Pentagon mean that the island, and its roughly 163,000 residents, are better prepared than any other U.S. community should words turn into war.
“(For) any type of attack coming from North Korea, there is not only a defense umbrella that is multi-layered in term of systems in place in (South) Korea, Japan, in the western Pacific, but also terrestrial systems here in Guam such as the THAAD battery that is stationed here,” he said.
THAAD, or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is an anti-ballistic missile defense system designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles.
“I think we have to understand that even in a million-to-one scenario we have to be prepared,” Calvo said.