HAGATNA, Guam – C.J. Urquico has lived on Guam for 19 years so he’s used to a military backdrop to everyday life. Navy ships visit, Air Force jets fly overhead and war games are played off the Pacific island’s shores.
There soon will be another military element in this U.S. territory — a defence system will be installed to shoot down incoming missiles and warheads. Its deployment comes amid intensifying threats from North Korea, which recently listed Guam among its targets for a nuclear attack on the United States.
That laid-back Guam is a named player in a nuclear showdown is the talk of the island. But at least for now, the population of about 180,000 is taking it in stride and not running for cover.
“The worst thing that can happen is we allow it to terrorize us,” said Urquico, a 36-year-old creative director for a telecommunications company. And while “there’s no real sinister feeling in the air,” he added: “People are definitely paying attention. I mean, how many times do we ever trend on Twitter?”
The remote, 209-square-mile island in the Pacific is no stranger to international conflict. The island’s waters are a graveyard for rusting equipment from World War II and the oldest residents remember living under Japanese occupation.
But many residents aren’t taking the North Korean threat too seriously. The annual typhoon season may be a bigger concern.
“Fortunately everybody has concrete homes here so we’re sort of a bunker already,” joked Leonard Calvo, vice-president of Calvo Enterprises, a firm that invests in insurance, real estate, media and retail and other businesses in Guam and other islands.
“I think this guy from North Korea is just puffing out his chest. A lot of people are numb to it.”
The island’s social media is abuzz with memes mimicking North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, with one joking that he is worried about “Guam bombs,” a popular term for beat-up, used cars on the island.
Not everyone is taking the issue lightly. Headlines about the threats have flashed across the island’s main news website for the past week, and some residents are brainstorming plans in case the worst-case scenario comes true.
Thomas Perez, an 18-year-old student at Guam High School, said he already has picked out a place to barricade himself in case the attack occurs.
“I could probably get there in 15 minutes,” he said.
Guam Gov. Eddie Baza Calvo said the government is providing information to help residents prepare, including guidance for where to hide if radiation is in the air.
“As a governor and a father and a husband and a grandfather, I do have some concerns because of the proximity of Guam to North Korea,” he said. “We are about a three hour flight away. That’s about half the distance from Guam to Hawaii.”
But he also stressed that an attack is a remote possibility and residents should go on with their daily lives.
The Pentagon system on its way to the island is part of a “layered” defence giving the military multiple opportunities to shoot down incoming missiles and warheads before they reach their targets. It’s specifically designed to shoot down missiles during their final stage of flight, and is expected to arrive on Guam within the next few weeks.
Even if nothing more happens, for some residents, the international attention is significant in itself. University of Guam President Robert Underwood said the threat is an opportunity for students and educators to discuss Guam’s role in global military strategy.
Urquico said the situation lets Guam’s residents know they’re not completely invisible to the rest of the world.
“I’ve never heard anyone make a direct threat to Guam,” he said. “My response was: ‘Wow, they can find Guam on the map? Most Americans can’t.'”
AP writers Anita Hofschneider, Oskar Garcia and Audrey McAvoy contributed to this report from Honolulu.