Though 2,100 miles away from North Korea, the lovely tropical island of Guam is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s most convenient U.S. target. Guamanians take that mostly in stride.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald J. Trump trade barbs the way two kids trade cards — except there’s much more at stake.
While the United States uses myriad sanctions to try to pressure North Korea to de-nuclearize, North Korea’s go-to threat has been to fire missiles at Guam, a tiny U.S. territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Guam is far away from the U.S. mainland, both literally and in the minds of most Americans. At about 8,000 miles from New Jersey, the island is nearly halfway across the world. And it’s just a fifth the size of Rhode Island, America’s smallest state.
“Mostly the people prepare for typhoons and tropical storms, and when I was living there, we didn’t necessarily have a mindset that we were always in danger. You can’t live life in fear. The island is too beautiful.” — Guam native Reynaldo Brigino
Guam is also 2,100 miles away from North Korea – well within firing range. While it’s impossible for Guamanians to ignore the North Korean threat, some claim they don’t let these tensions affect them.
“I don’t think the majority of the population is prepared for a conflict with North Korea,” said Reynaldo Brigino, a Filipino-Guamanian who was born in Guam. “Mostly the people prepare for typhoons and tropical storms, and when I was living there, we didn’t necessarily have a mindset that we were always in danger. You can’t live life in fear. The island is too beautiful.”
Brigino didn’t leave the island until he had to. At 21, he joined the military, trading his tropical island for San Antonio, Texas, and Air Force basic military training. That was nearly two years ago.
Though he hasn’t been back to Guam since, Brigino speaks of his island with the pride of someone who knows how rare it is to be born there. He’s among only about 160,000 permanent residents. Practically every time he mentions Guam, he precedes it with the phrase “the beautiful island of.”
“The beautiful island of Guam is so different than the mainland,” Brigino said in an interview. “Granted, I have only ever spent much time in Texas and Arizona; there are still a lot of little differences. This might be a little biased, but I find that the people there are much kinder, and place a higher emphasis on respect. Also, because it’s such a small tropical island, it’s just filled with beauty, everywhere you go.”
Marcus Bynum, a native of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, was a transplant to Guam. After joining the Coast Guard four years ago, at 18, he was stationed at the naval base there. In the years since, Bynum believes he’s seen the North Korean threat increase.
“There’s definitely more of an emphasis on North Korea than when I first got here,” he said, in an interview from Guam. “We do annual exercises with other branches in preparation for different kinds of threats, and we focus a lot on North Korea situations now. Maybe I was just too young to notice, or care, when I first got here, but it’s definitely on my mind now.”
But Bynum, too, downplays the Korean threat.
“North Korea says hollow threats all of the time, so we don’t pay too much attention to what we hear on the news,” he said. “It’s sort of become a running joke, to be honest. Our intel guys will let us know when we should be more concerned.”
Senior airman Blanca Rosario was deployed for two months at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam in the summer and fall of 2017, where she worked to provide intelligence to bomber aircraft pilots. She’s had firsthand experience in trying to mitigate the North Korean threat.
“Guam is the easiest [target] for North Korea, so we do our best to prepare for various threats,” Rosario said. “When I was out there, the workload and schedule were extremely demanding. We worked long hours, and barely had any time to enjoy the actual island. But from what I did get to see, it was extremely beautiful.”