'We hug each other a little tighter': Tense times in Guam after North Korea missile threat

Children are heading to school. Their parents are going to work. Tourists continue to arrive. But locals say the chatter around the island is nervous, filled with gallows humour and earnest discussions of emergency plans.

Pyongyang announces 'mid-August' plan for missile strike near U.S. territorial island

Guam residents, from left, Rodney Cruz, Tina Alicto, Tom Devlin and Jessica Kee say people there are anxious about a threat from North Korea to launch a missile strike near the island, but that life is proceeding basically as normal. ( Fitch, Tina Alicto, Tom Devlin, Jessica Kee)

As the threat of a missile strike from North Korea hangs like a cloud over Guam, life goes on almost as usual on the U.S. territorial island that's home to 165,000 American citizens and blessed with tropical sunrises over the Pacific Ocean.

Children are heading to school. Their parents are going to work. Tourists continue to arrive. But locals say the chatter around the island is nervous, filled with gallows humour and earnest discussions of emergency plans.

At restaurants, bars and waiting rooms, televisions have been tuned to the news, monitoring developments about Pyongyang's escalating standoff with Washington that has Guam in the isolated regime's sights.

After reports Tuesday that North Korea had successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, U.S. President Donald Trump warned the regime it would be hit with "fire and fury" if it continued with its nuclear provocation.

His warning apparently didn't work. North Korea quickly announced it was considering a missile strike against Guam.

On Wednesday, North Korea said it was finalizing a plan for mid-August that would see four missiles land only 30-40 kilometres from the island, creating a "historic enveloping fire."

On Thursday, Trump escalated his rhetoric, saying his "fire and fury" line evidently "wasn't tough enough" and that North Korea risks being "in trouble like few nations have ever been in trouble."

According to Guam Homeland Security, it would take about 14 minutes for a missile to reach the island itself. Residents would be notified by the blaring of 15 all-hazards warning systems on low-lying areas.

Guamanians spoke with CBC News about the mood around the island.

Rodney Cruz, 37, Yigo

President of Iraq-Afghanistan and Persian Gulf Veterans of the Pacific:

Rodney Cruz, a veteran who was wounded in Iraq, says he mainly worries about his son, who plans to enlist in the military. (Nathan Fitch/

There's a mixture of emotions in the air. Some family friends are making known they're going to be purchasing a one-way ticket back to the mainland because of this direct threat. And then you have other people not paying attention to it at all.

I'm at Andersen Air Force Base, on the airfield, just taking a look at whether there's any other activity going on with the amount of aircrafts flying in and out. They just did a rotation of the bomber planes, so there's a lot of activity, but everything out there seems normal. The ThreatCon level hasn't escalated past four, which would put the posture of the air force on standby.

I'm a little bit calm, knowing I've been deployed multiple times in Iraq and during the 2003 invasion. But I have a little fear for my family. This time it's my son. He's 17 years old, a grown boy, and he's about to enlist in the military. He knew daddy served overseas in Iraq and was wounded, and I don't think he was uncertain about joining the military, but he was kind of questioning, what will happen if there's an attack by North Korea?

If a bomb was to hit Guam, we're not that big. I told him if there was an attack, to understand there's nothing we can do as Pacific Islanders, it's not like you can drive to the mountains and hide in bunkers. We don't have those kinds of things. With a nuclear threat, you ask yourself, what would be the outcome of the fallout? Just trying to be realistic.

We're probably the second line of defence to the U.S. out here in the Pacific. The first line of defence will be Japan, the second will be Guam, and then of course Hawaii in the West Coast.

Guam has been in so many conflicts. The last time was the Japanese-American war in World War II, and more people suffered from that. We're talking about almost 75 years later, we're right back at this tension between this country in Asia and the [mainland] United States. Again, Guam is in the middle.

Tina Alicto, 38, Hagatna

Legislative assistant for Sen. Regine Biscoe Lee:

Tina Alicto, third from left, says her teenage daughter has been texting her from school for updates about the situation with North Korea. (Tina Alicto)

I did contemplate staying at home. My husband said, "If you did that you'd only be frightening yourself more. Just go about your normal day. Just be." I'm not even monitoring the news anymore because it just frightens me more.

Everywhere you go on this island, I promise you, the world news is on. It's all about North Korea. I heard it on the radio, waking up to the news around 6:30 in the morning.

We're preparing breakfast, getting ready for school, and my oldest daughter is 13. She's at the table, like, "What's all the chaos? Why is all the news about Guam?" And she's asking me, is this something where she'll be going to school and should be fearful that she may not come home at the end of the day? She's been texting me, asking me if there's any news. So yeah, it's cherish time. We hug each other a little tighter, you keep them close a little longer.

I just came back from lunch and you hear the talk: "Have you read the latest?" I sat next to one family at this small Mexican restaurant, a husband and wife, and they were talking about how they should prepare; their plan should anything happen. Like, this is where they should go, and it brought an overwhelming feeling to me. Should I have an emergency plan for me and my family?

It's chatter everywhere, but business as usual. We still have tourists strolling the Guam Museum. And right now, we're preparing for budget session for all Guam agencies and there are moments in between when you hear an update, and you look at each other and think, "Are we preparing for nothing?"

Tom Devlin, 70, Agat

Retired marine and Purple Heart recipient:

Vietnam War veteran Tom Devlin, 70, says the ramped-up rhetoric from the U.S. and North Korea 'is the same old political nonsense that's nothing to get excited about either way.' (Tom Devlin)

People ask me, "What do you think about this?" And I kind of shrug and say, "What am I gonna tell you?" They drop a bomb on Guam; Guam is gone. It's finished. But then North Korea will cease to exist in about two hours. And I don't think North Korea is so stupid to want their country to be a parking lot.

So you gotta calm down that rhetoric. I was in Vietnam, I was wounded three times there. I was one of the kids of "duck and cover," so nuclear war has always been around my generation.

Look, no one likes to be a target of anything, but the people of Guam have survived World War II, they were occupied by the Japanese, they know what war is about, and now the Japanese are some of the biggest crowds coming in for tourism.

I say, what's the big deal? What, is everybody gonna get on the next plane to Hawaii? For me, this is an average day. I went to Denny's like normal. Life goes on. I know it's human nature, but don't panic.

Jessica Kee, 27, Dededo

Army veteran:

Jessica Kee, an army veteran who was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2011, says she believed returning home to the territorial U.S. would allow her to feel safe again. (Jessica Kee)

I was in the army for four years. I was deployed. I was in Kandahar [Afghanistan] in 2011. But to come home, and feel like you put everything behind you, and then find out about stuff like this, it makes you go back on alert as if I was still in the military.

People are nervous, but nobody's routines have really changed. They're going to work, taking their kids to summer camp or getting ready for school to start. And I do a lot of community service with the veterans organization, I attend meetings, I go to my gym, I go to my appointments.

My best friend's husband is Korean and he served in the South Korean army and he said he's kind of worried because these are the things he had to experience in South Korea, and he moved here to get away from all that. And now the threat is coming here.

Our phones are ringing, our WhatsApp alerts are going off with all our families asking about us. I have family on the mainland. On social media, it's all these funny memes going around trying to cheer people up and calm them down.

On the island, usually the governor would have moved us to code yellow, but we're still in the green. I'm a little nervous, a little more alert, but one thing about Guam is we come together when it comes to times like this. I know I can't really stress about something I have no control over.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

Interviews were edited for length


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