(Updates with comment from Guam Homeland Security/Office of Civil Defense spokesperson)
(CNSNews.com) – North Korea’s reported preparations to launch a medium-range ballistic missile at any time have prompted stepped-up security precautions on Guam.
The U.S. territory’s governor has moved the threat level up one step to “yellow,” advising residents to prepare for a potential emergency but otherwise follow normal routines.
Schools have been holding drills, a Homeland Security joint information center (JIC) has distributed fact sheets urging families to have an emergency plan in place, and the police department introduced and tested a new siren system.
The siren will sound if the governor moves the threat level from “yellow” to “red,” alerting residents to take shelter in a suitable interior room of the house, school, workplace or wherever they are at the time. Those in cars are advised to pull over, move away from windows and keep the radio on for further instructions or an “all clear.”
Guam radio and television broadcaster KUAM quoted Gov. Eddie Calvo as telling local reporters the decision to move the level to “yellow” was a prudent step to take.
“Even though there’s a miniscule chance of any type of attack on Guam I believe it’s important to be ready,” he said.
“Even if it’s a one-in-100,000 or a one-in-a-million, do we take that chance for that one lucky shot?” Calvo asked. “I'm not prepared as a governor to do that.”
“This is the first time since the Japanese invasion during WWII that our island’s safety has been threatened,” KUAM reporter Jolene Toves told CNSNews.com early Friday.
She said while Guam residents of South Korean descent say threats from North Korea are normal for them, “this situation is new for rest of the island.”
At the same time, Toves added, “we must keep in mind that because our island is a strategic military location in this region there is always a chance that our enemies – enemies of the U.S. – will see our home as a target.”
Lying roughly 2,000 miles southeast of North Korea, Guam is about three times the size of Washington DC and has a population of 178,000 people, about 40 percent of them indigenous Chamorros.
It is home to 6,000 U.S. military personnel, a number expected to grow when 4,700 U.S. Marines move there from Japan, under a bilateral agreement aimed at reducing the U.S. military footprint on southern island of Okinawa.
North Korea has in recent days been preparing to launch what U.S. and South Korean officials say is a previously-untested missile with a potential range of up to 3,500 miles. The Kim Jong-un regime has threatened Guam by name, along with Hawaii and the continental United States, but of those potential targets Guam alone could theoretically be hit.
An unscientific poll on the website of the Saipan Tribune, a newspaper based in the Northern Mariana islands about 120 miles north of Guam, asked readers whether they were “worried about North Korea’s threats to attack Guam.” As of early Friday 42 percent of respondents said they were, 45 percent said they were not, and 13 percent said they were “a bit” worried.
Asked whether Guamanians were particularly anxious, Toves said although residents have raised concerns about the potential North Korean threat the JIC has been set up to answer questions and concerns.
“As with any threat residents want to know what is happening and how they are affected,” she said. “Keeping the public informed has allowed residents to remain calm. For the most part residents on island are going about their normal routines.”
Toves said residents have expressed confidence in the military’s ability to protect Guam, pointing to assurances by the Defense Secretary and by Guam’s local government.
“We have a large military presence on island with a Navy base and Air Force base, which makes Guam a strategic military location for the United States.”
“Guamanians are fairly vigilant. Some of our senior citizens experienced war, invasion, and occupation first hand during World War II,” Homeland Security/Office of Civil Defense spokesperson Dee Cruz told CNSNews.com.
“Many of our residents in the ‘baby boom’ generation remember the Cold War days, when there were threats from the former Soviet Union. Almost every resident has been through an emergency like a typhoon or earthquake, or some other scare like a tsunami watch,” Cruz said.
“Our people understand how important it is to be prepared for emergencies, even if there is only a threat of danger. Most of our people have remained calm and concerned; some have been alarmed by this experience. People have been going to work, dropping their kids to school, and going about their lives normally while educating themselves and preparing their families for emergencies.”
On Wednesday the University of Guam hosted a discussion panel on security situation.
“The goal was to provide a brief history of North Korea and realistic information on our current status,” university president Dr. Robert Underwood said Thursday.
“The discussion was well attended by our students and staff,” he said, “The university has also conducted in-house briefings with administrators, faculty, staff and students to ensure they are informed about the situation and are aware of our emergency procedures.”
Asked whether campus life had been disrupted in any way because of the situation, Underwood said, “It’s business as usual, though we encourage our university community to remain prepared and informed.”
“I’m sure for all residents in Guam there is a level of concern and caution,” he said, adding that the Homeland Security daily updates were being disseminated to the university community.
‘A significant strategic hub’
Last week, the Defense Department announced it would deploy a ground-based missile defense shield, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, to Guam “in the coming weeks” as a precautionary measure.
The Pentagon has declined to say exactly when the shield will be in place, but Toves said the THAAD announcement “has added additional comfort for residents that as a U.S. territory and U.S. citizens we are as protected as the mainland.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week said the U.S. Navy has also moved the guided-missile destroyers USS John McCain and USS Fitzgerald to the western Pacific, “where they are poised to respond to any missile threats to our allies or our territory.”
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear said he was confident the U.S. could intercept any North Korean missile, and that he would recommend that action “in defense of the homeland” or of U.S. allies.
Locklear described Guam as “a significant strategic hub for us in any scenario I think I could see in the Asia-Pacific, for the next number of decades.”
In his budget proposal to Congress this week, President Obama requested $767 million for Guam, including $318.4 million for U.S. Navy construction projects, $176 million for Air Force construction projects and more than $273 million for civilian infrastructure.