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Why North Korea threatened Guam, the tiny U.S. territory with big military power

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)

North Korea said it was reviewing plans to strike U.S. military targets in Guam with medium-range ballistic missiles to create “enveloping fire,” according to state media.

The message came hours after President Trump warned North Korea that it will be “met with fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before” if the country does not stop threatening the United States.

The threats follow a unanimous vote by the U.N. Security Council to impose strict new sanctions on North Korea.

North Korea’s state media outlets have often warned of strikes against the United States, but the threats are usually vague and do not typically include targets this specific, the Wall Street Journal said.

On Wednesday, North Korea's military said it will complete a plan by mid-August to launch four mid-range ballistic missiles over Japan and drop them within 18 to 24 miles of Guam "in order to interdict the enemy forces on major military bases on Guam and to signal a crucial warning to the U.S.," according to Yonap, a Korean news agency, which also said the military's top commander would need to finalize the plan.

That Kim Jong Un is eyeing Guam, the sovereign U.S. territory with a strategic airfield and naval station, is no surprise to the island's 160,000 people.

“Every time there is some saber rattling in this part of the world, Guam is always part of the occasion,” said Robert A. Underwood, president of the University of Guam and a former delegate to the House of Representatives.

“When you’re from Guam and live on Guam, it’s disconcerting, but not unusual,” Underwood told The Washington Post.

The governor of Guam said on Aug. 9 there has been “no change in the threat level to Guam,” after North Korea and President Trump traded threats. (Video: Eddie Baza Calvo)

The governor of Guam, Eddie Baza Calvo, posted an address early Wednesday morning on YouTube, telling island residents not to worry.

“I know we woke up to media reports of North Korea’s talk of revenge on the United States and this so-called newfound technology that allows them to target Guam,” the governor said. “I'm working with Homeland Security, the rear admiral and the United States to ensure our safety, and I want to reassure the people of Guam that currently there is no threat to our island or the Marianas.”

Calvo said that “there is no change in the threat level resulting from North Korea events” and that “there are several levels of defense, all strategically placed to protect our island and our nation.”

Noting that “Guam is American soil” and that “an attack or threat on Guam is an attack or threat on the United States,” Calvo said he had reached out to the White House and that officials have assured him that the island “will be defended.”

“With that said, I want to ensure that we are prepared for any eventuality,” Calvo said, adding that he is convening a group “to discuss the state of readiness of our military and our local first responders.”

“May God bless the people of Guam, and may God bless the United States of America,” he concluded.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that Guam is in no more danger than any other place, adding that North Korea’s threats naming the island as a target did not deter him from making a scheduled refueling stop there on his return from Malaysia.

Still, the threat of military strikes rankled some on the island.

“I’m a little worried, a little panicked. Is this really going to happen?” Cecil Chugrad, a 37-year-old bus driver for a tour bus company in Guam, told the Associated Press. “If it’s just me, I don’t mind, but I have to worry about my son. I feel like moving (out of Guam) now.”

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At about 4,000 miles west of Hawaii, and 2,200 miles southeast of North Korea, Guam is on the edge of U.S. power in the Pacific. Its combined Navy and Air Force installation, Joint Region Marianas, is the home port for nuclear submarines, a contingent of Special Operations forces and the launching point of flights for strategic bombers conducting rotational flights over Japanese territories and in the Korean Peninsula.

Guam has been a strategic linchpin since Spain relinquished control of the island to the U.S. Navy after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Japanese forces sped to the island after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and captured it, subjecting its people to violence that some historians estimate to have killed 10 percent of its population.

The island just celebrated its 73rd Liberation Day, commemorating the start of the U.S.-led effort to liberate Guam on July 10, 1944, Underwood said.

Now, the island paradise relies on tourism and military activity to buoy its economy, which is marked by high unemployment.

There have been recent efforts to grant Guam more control over its government, including support from the United Nations. Guamanians cannot cast ballots for president in U.S. elections, but they do vote for party delegates in primaries and have a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Robert E. Kelly, an expert on North Korea at Pusan National University in South Korea, said that the North Koreans always respond to threats with the “most outlandish rhetoric” but that Pyongyang also knows that attacking the United States would be suicidal.

“They’re not apocalyptic ideologues like Osama bin Laden, willing to risk everything on some suicide gamble,” Kelly said.

Report: North Korea successfully produced a nuclear warhead (Video: The Washington Post)

North Korea has warned of strikes against the United States before.

Last August, the country’s Foreign Ministry said that all U.S. military bases in the Pacific would “face ruin in the face of all-out and substantial attack,” according to the AP.

This followed a 2013 warning that Kim Jong Un had ordered his military to prepare plans to attack U.S. bases in Guam, Hawaii, South Korea and the continental United States.

North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S. analysts say

Guam’s growing strategic importance is due to its sovereign status, Underwood said.

The United States must get clearance from ally nations like South Korea and Japan to build up its military hardware in the event of defense escalations, which can be a lengthy process. But Guam has been used to project power with immediacy, Underwood said.

The island is also home to a terminal high-altitude area defense battery, which targets ballistic missiles. The presence of THAAD systems in South Korea has drawn consternation from Pyongyang and Beijing, which view it as an escalation.

A pair of B-1B Lancer bombers arrived in Guam from South Dakota this week to fly with South Korean and Japanese counterparts. That mission follows an operation over the Korean Peninsula in late July in which the warplanes were scrambled from Guam as a response to North Korea’s second test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts said could be capable of reaching as far as New York.

It was unclear Tuesday whether the Pentagon had elevated the readiness posture of its Guam-based fleet of ships and planes after the threat from North Korea.

“We always maintain a high state of readiness and have the capabilities to counter any threat, to include those from North Korea,” Johnny Michael, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, said in a statement to The Post.

The numerous installations on Guam host about 6,000 troops, a number that is growing as the United States seeks to rebalance its forces in the Pacific amid the Chinese military's growing reach and North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear program.

In 2014, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said 60 percent of the Navy and 60 percent of combat air forces would be located in the region.

Test firing a ballistic missile in California was routine. Growing tension with North Korea is not.

“Guam has always been a central part of our plans — certainly a central part of the Navy’s plans but now a central part of the entire Department of Defense’s plans,” he said at the time.

That leaves an island of U.S. citizens watching the news closely as posturing escalates on both sides of the Pacific.

Del. Madeleine Z. Bordallo, the island's representative in the U.S. Congress, said in a statement Wednesday that “North Korea's most recent threat to target Guam is dangerous and it further heightens tensions in our region.”

Underwood pointed out that “most of the time the overheated rhetoric comes from North Korea. This time it’s coming from the U.S. side.”

Guamanians share two common sentiments about their role in foreign policy, Underwood said. Media reports focus on the importance of military installations, making locals feel as if they are bit players on a large stage, he said. Others would rather shed the crosshairs.

“People say ‘I hate being a target. We’re the tip of the spear. Why can’t we be another part of the spear?’ ” Underwood said.

But Guam also has a proud tradition of supplying U.S. troops, with a disproportionate number of recruits coming from there and American Samoa, Underwood said.

Eighteen Guamanian troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, pointing to an outsize sacrifice for a territory with a population smaller than that of Eugene, Ore.

“We have more skin and more land in the game,” Underwood said.

This post has been updated.

Read more:

Tillerson to North Korea: ‘We are not your enemy’

Why Trump’s North Korea warnings were ‘unnecessary, scary, irresponsible’

Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ statement echoes North Korea’s own threats