As It Happens

'Do not look at the fireball': Guam issues nuclear strike guidelines as North Korean threat escalates

Guam issues government guidelines on how to prepare for an "imminent" missile threat after President Trump threatens "fire and fury" and North Korea warns of targeting the island with "an enveloping fire."
A man watches a TV screen in Seoul on Thursday showing a local news program reporting on North Korea's threats to strike Guam with ballistic missiles. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

It was an unsettling week of news for residents of Guam.

The North Korean military said it was reviewing plans to fire missiles at the small Western-Pacific island — a U.S territory and home to some key U.S. military bases.

The threat came hours after U.S. President Donald Trump delivered his own salvo. Trump warned on Tuesday that North Korea would be met with "fire and fury" if it continued to make threats towards the U.S. He further escalated his rhetoric on Friday, saying the U.S. is "locked and loaded."

On Friday, Guam's Homeland Security and Office of Civil Defense issued emergency guidelines on how to prepare for an "imminent" missile threat.

Robert A. Underwood, president of the University of Guam and a former delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, spoke with As It Happens guest host Rosemary Barton  about the mood on the island as rhetoric between the two countries reaches a fever pitch. 

Here is part of their conversation.

What is the mood like in Guam right now?

I would say that the mood is concern, but not panicky. I think we've seen this drill several times in the past.

But of course each time it comes up it seems a little bit more intense. And given the heated rhetoric over the past day. it's even more intense than in the past. 

Robert A. Underwood is the president of the University of Guam and a former delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. (University of Guam)

What the North Korea state media said is that the country's military would examine a plan to fire missiles and make an "enveloping fire" around Guam. Is that language that you are used to there?

No, it's not. And of course we have a missile defense system in place, a missile battery. But basically, I think we are more relying on the inability of North Korea to have a good guided missile system.

This really rhetorical excess ... we expect from the North Korea. Of course, we don't expect it from the White House, but it happened a little bit this time, so this adds a little bit to our anxiety. 

The fact that the U.S. president used the words "fire and fury" when he hit back, at least in terms of rhetoric, against North Korea. What did you make of that? I mean, he is your president too.

He said that if North Korea makes another threat, there will be fire and fury. And of course, he's made another threat. So now the rhetoric excess is continuing to increase.

Of course, the lack of predictability is always the occasion for misunderstanding and the possibility of things going wrong, so that remains our biggest concern at this time.

We heard from the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that this was language the president was using because he wanted to make sure Kim Jung-un understood, because the diplomatic attempts are not working. What do you make of that?

We're part of the U.S., so we're never consulted on military movements. But in this particular instance, I don't think Secretary Tillerson was given advance notice either. So he's trying to make the best of an awkward situation. 

So you say that this is something that people in Guam are used to. Why? It's happened many times before, I guess.

It's happened many times before and Guam is the only U.S. territory that was occupied during World War II. So, you know, the experience of war and being at the front edge of the projection of American power into this part of the world is kind of part of our social and political reality.

The front entrance sign for Anderson Air Force base is seen in Yigo, Guam. (Tassanee Vejpongsa/Associated Press)

So you are a target in some ways, but do you also feel better protected knowing that military presence is so significant?

We're just tired of being a target and we're tired of being thought of in those terms. Even in media reports in the U.S., when they refer to Guam, they don't refer to the fact that we have 160,000 people here. They refer to the fact that there are 6,000 military personnel.

People think of you as just a military base.

And that's pretty disturbing. We try to accommodate ourselves to that, but increasingly it becomes difficult.

Is there anything that people do practically or mentally to prepare themselves?

There's a lot of reassurance going around, people telling each other to just hold on. You know, we live on an island that's 30 miles long and 48 miles wide; if we were hit by a nuclear weapon there would be no ability to really respond.

Kids play in the sand in Tumon, Guam, on Thursday. (Tassanee Vejpongsa/Associated Press)

So, the question is — is that really likely to happen and how do we mentally get our arms around that? And I think for the most part, we have.

Secretary Tillerson came to Guam and he said Americans should sleep soundly at night and, I think, by and large, most Americans are sleeping soundly at night. But the Americans in Guam are sleeping soundly with one eye open. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Robert A. Underwood.