Residents on US-armed Guam laugh off threat from North Korea

Despite North Korea's warmongering, most people on Guam have faith in the firepower of the heavily armed US island to deter any attack

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 8:36am

It's 3pm on Saturday on the front line of a conflict some experts believe might explode into a third world war. Young couples stroll and children play in the white sand and surf of an idyllic, palm-fringed tropical beach.

Away from the scorching 32 degrees Celsius heat of the seafront, carefree holidaymakers amble lazily through five-star hotel lobbies and an air-conditioned shopping arcade full of designer shops such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Gucci.

One block further back, a British-themed bar called the Tower of London serves up B52 cocktails as regulars crack jokes and chortle at the idea that their afternoon session might be interrupted by a missile strike.

This is Guam - the remote but heavily armed US Pacific Island four hours' flight from Hong Kong that North Korean despot Kim Jong-un has threatened to target from 3,380 kilometres away with his missiles.

As well as a strategic target, it is a popular holiday destination for Hong Kong tourists who - with direct flights four times a week - are among its top visitors, along with Japanese, Taiwanese, mainland Chinese and South Korean tourists. Guam has also been a focus for immigration from mainland China.

My message to North Korea is, 'You just try it. We will annihilate you'
Guam bar manager

Tensions escalated at the end of last week when North Korea moved two Musudan rockets and launchers - each capable of delivering one-tonne warheads - to the east of the country, within possible striking range of Guam.

Experts are divided on the range and accuracy of the Musudan rocket, so far untested, and whether North Korea has the ability to fit it with a nuclear warhead - but the aggressive moves have spooked the US into urgently bolstering Guam's defences.

This US stronghold in the tropics - its westernmost territory, situated between the Philippines and Hawaii - is among a list of targets announced by the North Korean leader that includes South Korea, Japan and even the US west coast.

As tensions continue to mount in the stand-off with the rogue state, islanders defiantly laughed off the idea of a North Korean attack and insisted it was nothing but a phoney war.

"My message to North Korea is, 'You just try it. We will annihilate you'," said bar manager Lisamarie Flores as she mixed drinks beneath portraits of the late Princess Diana, and Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, in the Tower of London, a haunt for US servicemen.

"Kim is just a little dictator trying to show that he's a big man, but there's no way in the world that we're going to be frightened of him.

"People in mainland US might get worked up about this but regulars here don't even talk about it that much. They're more interested in the [NCAA] basketball Final Four than North Korea.

"If there was a conflict and it sent nuclear [weapons], it would be ugly of course. But it would be North Korea that would be destroyed."

With its beaches and hotels packed, people in Guam - population 180,000 and known as the place "Where America's day begins" - seem determined to shrug off the North Korean menace and carry on with life as usual.

The only unusual sight on a seafront thronging with Asian and American tourists was a row of first aid tents - put up not to treat casualties of incoming missiles, it turned out, but athletes injured in Sunday's inaugural Guam marathon.

In a sign the growing crisis has failed to disrupt island life, 2,000 athletes, including many US servicemen, raced to a finishing line a few kilometres from Andersen Air Force Base where the real B52 bombers, stealth bombers and a huge US arsenal is based.

"This North Korea business is total nonsense," said the manager of one five-star hotel in Guam's premier resort of Tumon Beach. "Our hotel is nearly full and not one person has cancelled since this crisis began. They couldn't possibly hit us from there and anything they tried to launch would be taken out of the sky at the push of a button."

Some islanders seemed flattered at the global attention Guam is receiving ("How often have we trended on Twitter before?" one of them asked) and were amused that North Korea appears to know the precise location of an island most Americans could not place on a map.

Tourists too seemed equally untroubled. One Hong Kong businessman checking into the Hilton with his family for a weekend break guffawed at the idea of anything remotely dangerous navigating the vast stretch of Pacific Ocean from North Korea.

"With their track record of missile launches, it would be just as likely to hit Central [in Hong Kong] so we're probably safest staying here for a few more days," he said.

Despite the bravado and the jokes at the expense of Kim's regime, however, there is nevertheless an underlying tension and concern over the warmongering threats from North Korea towards the island.

A headline in the island's daily newspaper, the Pacific Daily News, screams: "North Korea: attack possible" - although the following day's lead story was "Guam stays calm" - and senior politicians have stoked disquiet by warning islanders to prepare for an emergency.

Guam Governor Eddie Calvo said last Friday that all Kim needed was "one lucky shot" to cause "a lot of damage to our island home". A senior senator cautioned families to speak to their children and drill them to deal with disasters.

Despite the boasts of impregnable defences, an online poll on a popular Guam news website found that two-thirds of respondents did not trust US missile defence systems to save them.

There have been unconfirmed reports of people building air raid shelters and panic buying at supermarkets. Others are said to have boarded up windows in anticipation of a bomb strike, although there was no evidence of panic-buying and boarded windows on an extensive tour of the island.

Although the US has ordered an air defence system called THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) for Guam, it will not arrive for weeks yet and some islanders fear it may come too late if Kim orders a strike.

"Every day there seems to be a new threat from North Korea and something new for us to worry about," said a curator at a museum on the island dedicated to the Pacific conflict in the second world war. "It really is scary, whatever people might tell you.

"We were supposed to have about 8,000 US marines sent to Guam from Okinawa in Japan about two years ago but they haven't arrived because of military budget cuts. So people do feel as if they aren't properly defended. They do feel a bit exposed and vulnerable."

But the mood among indigenous islanders who work and whose families are supported by the US forces is more positive.

In shabby one-storey houses surrounding the base, where ragged Stars and Stripes flags flutter, islanders show an unshakeable confidence in the US military, which after tourism is the biggest source of income for the island's economy.

Thousands of US soldiers, sailors and airmen are posted to Guam and the B52 bombers and stealth bombers, seen flying low over the island, bolster the sense of US invincibility.

At his home just a few hundred metres from the perimeter fence of the base, engineer Steve Aldis laughs and jokes with friends on his day off and says: "I'm not worried about an attack.

"I know that the US defences would knock out anything North Korea put up into the sky without them even having to send a plane up. Everyone is very relaxed. There is no sense of crisis. We think it's all just talk."

Back in the tourist resort of Tumon Beach, long-term expatriate Ralf Meyer shared the engineer's confidence. "People living in Guam aren't nearly as wound up about this as people seem to be overseas," the retired businessman said.

"I had a call from my brother in Europe and he told me the TV was saying we were on standby for an invasion. I told him we'd get our pool cues and golf clubs and fight them on the beaches when they landed."

Meyer comes from Switzerland, where Kim went to high school, and says he is baffled that the dictator appeared to have turned out so badly.

"Switzerland is a reasonably democratic country and our schools are good. How can he now behave in such a crazy and illogical way? But I guess the truth is it isn't him - it's the generals who are controlling this."

"We aren't worried, though. Why should we be? We know the firepower we have on the US bases in Guam. I truly believe we are living in the safest place on earth."