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Why Guam matters (the CNMI, too)

Posted: August 17, 2017 2:17 p.m.
Updated: August 18, 2017 1:00 a.m.

“North Korea attack on hold,” the banner read on CBS This Morning on Tuesday. I’m betting folks on Guam felt a little better after learning North Korean President Kim Jung-un was holding off on launching nuclear missiles to a point very close to the western Pacific island.

On the other hand, Jung-un’s statement that “If the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean peninsula, (we) will wring the windpipes ... and point daggers at their necks” wasn’t exactly comforting.

Guam -- a U.S. trust territory -- sits by itself at the end of a long chain of islands at approximately 13.44 degrees north latitude and 144.79 degrees longitude. The next nearest island -- about 50 miles away to the northeast -- is Rota, the southernmost island of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). One hundred and twenty-one miles away is Tinian, from which the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki started their journey. A few more miles away is Saipan, the island I lived on during my high school years. There are other islands in the CNMI even further north.

My father, sister and I visited Guam many times, serving primarily as a starting point for trips back to the U.S. mainland and elsewhere.

For instance, Guam is just a little more than 1,700 miles from Taiwan; and about 1,500 miles from either Tokyo, Japan, or Manila, Philippines. Asia and Australia are relatively short airplane rides away.

Still, one might ask, “Why would North Korea want to attack a 210-square-mile island out in the proverbial middle of nowhere of the (western) Pacific Ocean?”

Well, for one thing, about 29 percent of the entire island is taken up by U.S. military bases. There’s Andersen Air Force Base in Yigo, home to the 36th Wing of the Pacific Air Forces 11th Air Force. Andersen is combined with Naval Base Guam, home of Submarine Squadron 15, Coast Guard Sector Guam and Naval Special Warfare Unit One, as well as dozens of Pacific Command Pacific Fleet, Seventh Fleet and Seabee units. In addition, the U.S. Navy has an ordnance annex and a naval computer/telecommunications station. Guam also has a National Guard unit.

In other words, Guam is of strategic military value to the U.S. in the Pacific.

The Pacific Daily News, Guam’s top newspaper, is doing a terrific job of keeping its readers up to date on the burgeoning crisis. A week ago, on Aug. 11, the top headline simply read “14 Minutes” -- a reference to how long it would take a nuclear warhead-tipped missile to reach Guam.

And North Korea’s Jung-un claimed he’ll fire four such missiles at Guam. Four nuclear missiles for a somewhat tiny island.

Scary? You better believe it.

It’s scary for the island’s nearly 163,000 people, which is about 30,000 more than live in Columbia or Charleston. Native-born Guamanians -- most of whom are Chommoro, the same indigneous group as in the CNMI -- are U.S. citizens.

In addition, during Fiscal Year 2016, according to the Guam Visitors Bureau, more than 1.5 million people arrived on Guam by air or by sea. More than 50 percent of those arrivals were from Japan. Guess where the next-largest group came from, at about 35 percent: “Korea.” I’m betting they meant South Korea. A little math shows that, on average, there are an additional 4,100 or so people visiting the island on any given day.

Residents and visitors alike, that is a lot of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, firefighters, police officers, shopkeepers, students, hotel staff, airline employees, journalists, government officials, office workers, construction crews.... In other words, a lot of people just like you and me.

Why does Guam matter, along with my old friends up in the CNMI? Because of the people -- the 163,000 mostly American citizens who live at the western Pacific’s gateway to the world.

Let’s all hope the war of words between North Korea’s and the United State’s leaders doesn’t turn into something much, much worse.

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