‘At the Tip of the Spear’: Guam Residents on U.S.-North Korea Tensions
We asked readers how they felt about the recent threats. Their responses were laced with frustration, fear and a strong sense of home.
People in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are worried. They are citizens of the United States who live in the middle of the Pacific — and now they are at the center of the world’s attention. President Trump told North Korea on Tuesday to expect “fire and fury” if it continued its provocations; North Korea responded with threats to launch an “enveloping strike” of missiles around Guam. Journalists have descended on the island.
The New York Times asked readers in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands for their thoughts. Several themes emerged: frustration that many Americans are ignorant of their more than 200,000 fellow citizens in the Western Pacific; fear about the exchange of bellicose words; and a strong sense of home and identity. Here are excerpts from their comments, some of them edited for length and clarity.
‘We Are Geopolitical Playthings’
Teresita L. Perez, 49, a teacher who lives in the Agana Heights community in Guam, said the island’s history since 1898, when it became part of the United States after the Spanish-American War, “has been about maneuvering through, around, and under the West.”
She said that both “everything and nothing” was different after the harsh dialogue:
“We are geopolitical playthings. We know too well the consequences of war and have perfected our responses. So what’s different? For me? This time I cried. And I keep crying because a new truth emerged for me that has amplified the feeling of death: Not only are we political pawns, we are inconsequential to most of the U.S.”
She added: “What else is different? The reactions are so much more. More vocal. More fierce. More stoic or nihilistic or Catholic. So much more.”
She said that leaving the island was an option only for people with privilege.
‘Just Regular Americans’
Michael A. Pangelinan, 47, a lawyer who lives in Dededo, in the north of the island, was one of many Guamanians who expressed frustration about how little their home was understood by Americans.
“It’s very disappointing that our national media reports of North Korea’s threats against Guam focus only on the U.S. servicemen and women and their families stationed here and only in passing mention that all 162,000 residents of Guam are Americans. All of Guam’s residents are U.S. citizens. If you’re born here, you’re a U.S. citizen. We’re patriotic Americans and love our military, and we’re happy to be home to U.S. military bases — much like other American cities with U.S. bases — but we’re mainly just regular Americans like Americans who live in Phoenix or Albuquerque. We drop our kids to school in the morning and go to work at normal jobs. We shop at Kmart and Home Depot and watch our kids play soccer on the weekends. How do we feel about being threatened with a missile attack by North Korea? How would Americans in Phoenix or Albuquerque feel?”
‘Two Mentally Unstable Leaders’
The combination of Mr. Trump’s message — which was evidently improvised, and not run past his advisers — and Mr. Kim’s apocalyptic tenor had many respondents to our questionnaire deeply worried.
Judith Mosley, 61, a small-business owner in Barrigada, Guam, said that she was praying that the worst would not come to pass, but pointed out that it was the people of South Korea who were at the gravest risk:
“Never has there been a situation of two mentally unstable leaders, with fragile egos bringing the world to the brink of a third world war. The slaughter that would take place in South Korea alone is unthinkable.”
Ms. Mosley said she had lived in Guam for 24 years and raised six children there. “Never gave it a thought that a small island, that most people don’t even know where it is, would be caught in the middle of something like this — now we are.”
‘At the Tip of the Spear’
Leiana S. A. Naholowa’a, 41, is a university instructor who studies Chamorro, the Spanish-influenced language of Guam’s native people, and its literature. She recalled Guam’s history in World War II; it was seized by Japan in 1941 and retaken in 1944 after a battle that claimed 20,000 lives on both sides.
“I had a scheduled meeting with an important Chamorro scholar who felt like it was World War II again, and how being at the ‘tip of the spear’ was merely a front line of many that the U.S. could easily retract from. Family chat messages, social-media chaos filled with anger and cynicism and concern and humor, gazing into the watery eyes of friends, letting the mundane ground me again in the way it innocently carries on. But our spirits feel brighter and more alert, people simultaneously distracted and considerate, and no American nonveteran will really know this feeling unless they’ve lived in a war zone that any day could be bombed.”
‘No Idea That It Is Part of America’
Harry B. Blalock, 56, is from Michigan but has lived on Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands, for 21 years. He bemoaned the lack of awareness of his home region, not just among mainland Americans, but among politicians:
“You quickly realize just how out of touch most Americans are about Guam and the Marianas. Most people couldn’t find it on a map, have no idea that it is part of America and if you’re born here you are a U.S. citizen, regardless of your parents’ home country. Sadly, most politicians don’t know much about them either, or they believe distorted facts with little or no basis in reality. It would be great if our elected leaders took the time to properly educate themselves about the islands before voting on huge changes to our islands and our ability to survive.”
Regardless of the heated rhetoric surrounding his part of the world, he said, Saipan was home: “I am here to stay, one way or the other.”
‘A Barbecue on the Beach’
Mary Lee Szabo, 32, a social work student who lives in the northern village of Yigo, Guam, said that most people she knew had “resolved to remain positive and stay true to our laid-back, island-style spirit.”
She added: “We have surmised that the situation is out of our hands and therefore we shall maintain a level of normalcy while elevating our love and adoration for our stunning island paradise and community.”
She compared the threat of war to the potential for a natural disaster:
“Most of us are enjoying our home the same as we would if there was threat of a typhoon or tsunami. Stock up on water, emergency food and candles, have a barbecue on the beach until the bad weather comes. What more can we do as civilians being threatened by a dictator with ICBMs? We will continue to appreciate what our island has to offer as long as we can.”
‘Guam Is My Home’
Alymer M. Portacio Jr., 31, a nurse in Dededo, said it was understandable but silly to tell Guamanians to move to the mainland if tensions worsen:
“Simply put, Guam is my home, my family is here, my life and my livelihood is here. The closest relatives I have are in Hawaii, and even there the threat is still imminent. You simply can’t just leave everything behind, without thinking ‘Where will I go?’ and ‘How do I start my life again?’ I just hope that the average American sees us just like the average American.”