C.J. Urquico has lived on Guam for 19 years so he is used to a military backdrop to everyday life. US Navy ships visit, US Air Force jets fly overhead and war games are played off the Pacific island’s shores.
There soon will be another military element in the US territory — a defense 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 US.
That Guam is a named player in a nuclear showdown is striking for an island known for its slow pace and laid-back attitudes.
“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. “[While] there’s no real sinister feeling in the air, people are definitely paying attention. I mean, how many times do we ever trend on Twitter?”
The remote tropical island is no stranger to international conflict — its waters are a graveyard for rusting tanks from World War II and the oldest residents remember living under Japanese occupation — but residents say North Korea’s threat is not even attracting as much concern as a seasonal typhoon.
“Our sales have been pretty steady,” said Michael Benito, general manager at Payless Supermarket in Tamuning on the west side of the island, explaining that there has not been a rush to buy canned goods such as Spam and corned beef.
“There hasn’t been any bump in sales,” he said.
Benito said most people on Guam are generally prepared for disasters given the region’s frequent storms, and are well-equipped with flashlights and other necessities.
“Fortunately, everybody has concrete homes here so we’re sort of a bunker already,” said Leonard Calvo, vice president of Calvo Enterprises, a firm that invests in insurance, real estate, media and retail, as well as other businesses in Guam and other islands.
The businessman from Maite said North Korea’s threats have been the topic of conversations at recent family barbecues, but most people are still skeptical of what North Korea can do.
“I think this guy from North Korea is just puffing out his chest,” Calvo said. “A lot of people are numb to it.”
Social media is abuzz with memes mimicking North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with one joking that he is worried about “Guam bombs,” a popular term for beat-up used cars on Guam, but others are not taking the talk lightly.
Large headlines about the threats have flashed across the island’s main news Web site 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 has already picked out a place to barricade himself in case the attack occurs.
“I could probably get there in 15 minutes,” he said, adding that he is worried about the effects of nuclear fallout.
Perez is not the only one thinking about emergency shelter, Guam Governor Eddie Baza Calvo said the government is providing information to help residents prepare in case of an attack, including guidance for where to hide if radiation is in the air.
Calvo said an attack is unlikely and he has advised the public to go on with their daily lives, but he also said no one can be 100 percent sure of their safety.
“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.”
Several Guam residents say that they are confident that the missile defense system has what it takes to stop any offense North Korea may launch.
The system on its way to the island is part of a “layered” defense giving the military multiple opportunities to shoot down incoming missiles and warheads before they reach their targets. It is 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 it is a geography lesson, at least.
“I’ve never heard anyone make a direct threat to Guam,” Urquico 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.