What It Feels Like on Guam, Caught Between Trump and North Korea

This article originally appeared on this site.

On Tuesday, President Trump warned that the United States would unload “fire and fury” on North Korea if it continued to threaten the U.S., an apparent response to North Korea’s recent intercontinental-ballistic-missile tests, and possibly to North Korea’s reported development of a miniaturized nuclear warhead. This morning, the state media in North Korea reported that a plan to fire missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam could be ready in days. Guam, four thousand miles west of Hawaii and about two thousand miles southeast of Pyongyang, is home to two U.S. military bases.

Ken Leon-Guerrero, sixty-two, has spent much of his life on Guam. After years as a sales and operations consultant in Hawaii, California, Nevada, and Georgia, he is now “semi-retired” there. He’s a community advocate at a nonprofit called Guam Citizens for Public Accountability, and from his back yard, on a hill, he keeps an eye on U.S. military installations. On Thursday, while taking a break from yard work, he spoke by phone about the atmosphere on the island. His account has been edited and condensed.

“My father, who was from Guam, was in the military, like a very high portion of Guam’s population. Because our island was invaded and held by the Japanese during World War II, we have a very strong sense of patriotism. So I was a military brat and grew up all over the United States. Okinawa. Africa. We settled here on Guam when I was fourteen. I left Guam when I was twenty-eight and came back when I was fifty-three.

“The media hasn’t been able to get any information on Guam right. Fox News had a news slide showing that ‘thirty-one hundred Americans are affected.’ Well, there’s a hundred and sixty thousand residents here. We’re all U.S. citizens—but not if you hear Fox talk about it!” [Fox News has since corrected the graphic.]

“I live in Santa Rita, located between the naval magazine, a weapons-storage area for the U.S. Navy, and just a couple of miles away from the main naval base. What I tell people is that we’re on the western edge of Western civilization. We’re closer to Asia than we are to America. I love the small-town feel here. Everybody is into everybody’s business. It’s also a tropical paradise.

“Until recently, none of us felt concerned about the volatility with North Korea. I mean, there have been incidents and everything like that. But it used to be handled a lot differently. Now, instead of using diplomacy, we’re relying on Twitter! That’s concerning.

“Then we get vague assurances from the Secretary of State while he’s refuelling on Guam on his way back to the United States. I thought it was just a piece of bad P.R.: he lands here on Guam with no advance notice, issues a couple of press statements, and then jumps on his plane and takes off before anyone on Guam even knew he was here. And the first we find out he’s here is we start reading these press statements issued in other media? It really wasn’t the reassuring presence it could have been, you know.

“On a scale of one to ten, my fear level is 0.5. I’m not rushing down to the store for emergency supplies. We live in typhoon alley—we’re used to preparing for natural disasters. Also, the military is very, very protective of their assets. That’s why we have two anti-missile batteries between us and North Korea, plus we have the naval ships and the military assets. And I’m sure they’ve got all kinds of things they’re not telling us about.

“So, from my perspective, and the perspective of my friends, we think it’s all bluster. We wish the media would get off this and onto something more important, like the final season of ‘Game of Thrones.’ ”

“I hear the North Korea news at the top of the hour, on the radio, and I figure, O.K., a two-minute story at the top of the hour, I can handle that. The rest of my time is spent doing stuff that matters, like watering my tomatoes, walking my dogs. The whole time I’m doing that, I’m looking down at the military base and I don’t see any sense of heightened activity. No alerts, you know. No frenzied preparations taking place.

“You have to understand, when my father was in the Air Force, he was in Strategic Air Command. I was raised with a certain level of fatalism and paranoia. We knew that if the Russians tried to do anything, their first move would be to try to take out the bases, to knock out as many bombers on the ground as they could. So we learned to see the signs in the activity on the base. From where I sit—I’ve got a pretty good view—I don’t see any signs of the type of activity that the military thinks this is a serious threat, either.

“I’m at my house right now. You can hear my son mowing the lawn. Shows you where our priorities are. Gotta get these lawns done! Screw North Korea!

“I listen to talk radio here, K57.com. You can listen to it online. Half the people are attacking the governor, who issued a press response assuring everybody that nothing is happening. So they’re attacking him for, ‘How would he know? He’s the governor of Guam! How would he know what’s going on inside the mind of the dictator of North Korea?’ And then the other half of the people who call in are attacking Trump for being provocative and poking sticks. Some people are frustrated over the fact that, of all the things going on in the world right now, this is the lead, main, and all-day story. And I tend to agree with them on that one. So does my family. My son, mowing the yard, is tired of it. My wife, she’s working on a beading project she’s really excited about.

“Our property is heavily overgrown—it’s about fifty-two acres. A family compound with twenty houses on it. I’ll see if I can find a break in the jungle. O.K., yes, I see the gap in the jungle now. And I see the ships at anchor. I can see two of the three most critical military installations on the island and no heightened activity, tension, or unusual levels of alertness. And, believe me, we know it if we see it. I’m a military brat. I’m not hearing sirens or radios blaring down at the naval dock. None of that.

“They’re talking about medicinal marijuana on the radio now. They’ve moved on. Our lives here haven’t changed. One of the callers, someone from the admiral’s office here, said it best. He likened the state of readiness here to T.C.C.O.R.”—Tropical Cyclone Conditions of Readiness—“4. That’s where we could have a tropical storm in five days’ time. Well, we’re always in T.C.C.O.R. 4.”