The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I live on Guam. Here’s how we’re coping with the North Korea nuclear standoff.

Here's why North Korea threatened an island in the Pacific that's home to 160,000 people. (Video: Victoria Walker, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)
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SANTA RITA, Guam — Living on Guam is a dichotomy — a beautiful island in the middle of the Western Pacific that plays an important strategic role in scary world events, the homeland of the Chamorro people for 3,500 years or more. We who call Guam our home are reminded of this reality every day.

We wake up to colorful sunrises, drive to work next to the deep blue Pacific Ocean, see brilliant rainbows and spectacular cloud formations every day. The reef life, waterfalls, beaches and sunsets are awesome all the time. The living is easy, and we love it intensely. Some 1.3 million people visit Guam each year to enjoy it with us. Mostly Asian, the visitors come to enjoy the beauty of Guam and the warm hospitality of the Chamorro people. Tourists are the bedrock of our economy.

But we also see uniformed soldiers, warships, submarines that we know are heavily armed, and huge military planes and helicopters daily. There are international military exercises here regularly. Nearly everyone on the island has at least one relative serving in the military. It’s just a small island — we know each other, including the U.S. Armed Forces personnel stationed here. We shop and eat and drink together.

This has been Guam’s fate — the island is large enough to host a good number of people and has plenty of fresh water and a substantial deep harbor. And we’re used to being treated as a pawn in other powers’ strategic games: In 1941, the United States gave up Guam without much of a defense against a Japanese attack in World War II. U.S. forces sent their dependents home just before Japan attacked, leaving a small contingent of soldiers ill-equipped to protect the island. Chamorros suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese for 2½ years. More than 1,000 Chamorros were killed.

Memories of that devastating time were brought back this week, as President Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong Un threatened each other, making the people of Guam feel as though we all have targets on our backs. On Wednesday, North Korea announced that it might fire missiles to within 25 miles of Guam.

How President Trump could tweet his way into nuclear war with North Korea

We try to shrug it off, make some jokes about how idiotic these leaders are and then get on with our lives. As we watch hour after hour of the news, people say brave things like: We are strong, we are resilient, our faith will sustain us. The U.S. military will protect us this time, because now we are U.S. citizens. It seems all the world’s media is finally looking at us.

Just about everyone on Guam is getting tearful, panicky calls from friends and family off the island begging them to leave and go somewhere safer. Social media is heavy with these conversations, and people are angry that this is happening here again.

We just celebrated our Liberation Day with memories of war fresh on our minds.

One woman told me that her son called this morning worried sick, as his whole family is on Guam except him. If Guam is bombed, he will be all alone in the world. She spoke with him for quite a while and said he’s okay now. She asked him to pray for peace and is confident that the U.S. military will intercept any missiles fired at us.

Another friend told me that she has broken out in a terrible rash from stress. She has a granddaughter in the military stationed at the Korean Demilitarized Zone and fears for her safety. The young woman told her grandmother by phone this week that they have been immunized for poisons and wear protective clothing. They will have only two minutes to act if attacked, she said. But “don’t worry, Grammie, we’re going to be all right. You raised a tough Santa Rita girl.” After she hung up, my friend cried, because she knew her granddaughter was terribly scared and just trying to put on a brave face.

A neighbor looks at it this way: We’ve all been given one life to live, and she is choosing to be the best person she can, to live fearlessly and courageously. Another said she will not let this ruin her life. She will continue her everyday life, she said, and she rests in the hands of God.

A veteran told me that he knows the scenarios of engagement and is aware of the assets and capabilities of the United States and its allies. He also knows that no one wants a nuclear war, because everybody loses. He said it’s time for a regime change in North Korea.

Many people here have been angry about a Fox News graphic showing that Guam has a total of 3,831 Americans affected by the threat — which excludes the local population of 160,000 people, all of whom are U.S. citizens, too, though as an unincorporated territory of the United States, we don’t vote for president and have no voting representation in Congress. It’s a never-ending dilemma for us, leaving us with a sense of disempowerment. We’ve worked for years on decolonization and self-determination but haven’t made much progress.

We are all watching, though, to see whether the military starts sending their dependents off Guam again. We are fervently hoping that cooler heads will prevail.

Read more:

The Reagan-era invasion that drove North Korea to develop nuclear weapons

Trump’s tough talk about North Korea might actually end the crisis

North Korea is a joke. And that’s the problem.