Foreign Relations & International Law

What the Heck Is Guam? A Guide for the Perplexed

Shannon Togawa Mercer
Tuesday, August 15, 2017, 11:00 AM

North Korean state media announced Tuesday that Kim Jong Un, after reviewing military plans, would hold off on his threat to fire missiles at Guam. The people of Guam, a U.S. territory where I spent my formative years and one of the Pacific islands my Chamorro family calls home, are accustomed to rolling in and out of global consciousness because of periodic military threats and the occasional congressional hearing about the island’s buoyancy.

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North Korean state media announced Tuesday that Kim Jong Un, after reviewing military plans, would hold off on his threat to fire missiles at Guam. The people of Guam, a U.S. territory where I spent my formative years and one of the Pacific islands my Chamorro family calls home, are accustomed to rolling in and out of global consciousness because of periodic military threats and the occasional congressional hearing about the island’s buoyancy. But the nuclear brinksmanship of recent days, including President Trump’s threat of “fire and fury, the likes of which the world has never seen,” has sparked an unprecedented flurry of media coverage about the island’s military significance and history.

As we take a moment to appreciate Kim’s promise Tuesday to “wring the windpipes” of the “foolish Yankees” and “point daggers at their necks,” here are some frequently asked questions about the island in the context of recent tensions:

Where is Guam?

Guam is a small Micronesian island about 13 degrees north latitude and 144 degrees east longitude. It sits almost 1,500 miles south of Japan and around 2,100 miles from North Korea. It is the lower-most island of the Mariana Islands archipelago, the northern portion of which is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, another U.S. protectorate.

Why is Guam a part of the United States?

Let’s start from the very beginning. According to historians, Guam was discovered and populated by Austronesian peoples around 4,000 years ago. Guam got a jump on contact with Europeans when Ferdinand Magellan stumbled upon Guam in 1521. About four decades later, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi declared Guam a part of the Spanish empire in 1565. Guam remained a Spanish colony until it was ceded to the United States as a concession of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Guam was governed by the U.S. Navy from 1898 until it was captured by the Japanese empire on Dec. 8, 1941, around the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States recaptured Guam on July 21, 1944. About six years later, Guam became an unincorporated territory of the United States under the Organic Act in 1950. The people of Guam continue to celebrate July 21, or “Liberation Day,” with a big parade, fiestas and other patriotic festivities.

What languages are spoken on Guam?

Guam is a melting pot of languages and cultures. Its official languages are English and Chamorro, but broad swaths of the population also speak Philippine languages; other Micronesian languages; and Asian languages such as Korean, Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese. Many of us raised in the Chamorro culture grow up speaking English and some Chamorro. Although Chamorro is taught today in some of the island’s schools and at the University of Guam, it hasn’t always been taught. The Chamorro language is experiencing a renaissance, having been severely threatened since the beginning of the American colonial period. Nonprofit organizations have developed classes and programming to help promote the language. There have also been a number of creative efforts to use modern media, such as children’s TV shows and YouTube soap operas, to drum up interest in Chamorro language and enable proficiency.

Is Guam part of Hawaii?


Guam is about 3,950 miles from Hawaii and on the other side of the international date line. The islands are situated in different regions of the Pacific, with Hawaii in Polynesia and Guam in Micronesia. The ethnicities of the native people of Guam and Hawaii differ in accordance with their geographical locations. Historians trace the origins of Hawaiians to Polynesian navigators.

Another distinguishing factor: Hawaii is a state. Before its admission to the U.S. union in 1959, Hawaii was an incorporated organized territory, a republic, and a sovereign kingdom ruled by the Kamehameha dynasty. While Guam was ruled by chiefs, or maga’låhi, prior to Spanish conquest, the island did not have a comparable monarchic system.

Are the people of Guam (Guamanians) citizens of the United States?

Yes, but there are some controversial caveats to our citizenship. The Guam Organic Act of 1950 granted Guam residents U.S. citizenship, but as the Harvard Law Review put it, “only through congressional grace, rather than constitutional right.” Despite having U.S. citizenship, residents of Guam are not allowed to vote in U.S. federal elections. Residents of Guam carry U.S. passports and can enlist in the military, but, like residents of Washington, D.C., Guamanians have no voting representative in Congress. Guam’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives is Madeleine Bordallo (D). Although residents of Guam can’t vote for president, Guam conducts a straw poll during every presidential election. Last November, 72 percent of poll participants voted for Hillary Clinton.

Guam’s political status is a contentious issue, motivating some discontent at home and in the continental United States. The arguments proffered by political groups are emotional and complex. I don’t profess to describe them fully here, but I can offer a high-level summary for context. Functionally, there are three options for a colony of the United States: pursue statehood, pursue independence or pursue a middle-ground much like Palau’s free association. Guam’s current territorial status, with the protection of the U.S. military, the creeping assimilation into American culture and lack of representation in the federal government, has fueled activism for equal rights under the U.S. Constitution (and in some cases statehood). But others advocate the demilitarization and decolonization of the island, independence, or modified territorial status. John Oliver produced a widely watched episode of “Last Week Tonight” summarizing some of these positions. The discourse around self-determination reached a boiling point this year when the District Court of Guam ruled that a law limiting participation in a plebiscite about Guam’s political status was unconstitutional. The law proposed to limit eligible plebiscite participants to native inhabitants of Guam, defined as those who became U.S. citizens under the Organic Act. It was challenged by a white, non-Chamorro resident of Guam who had applied to participate in the vote. This ruling elicited passionate responses from all sides and the attorney general of Guam filed an appeal to the federal 9th Circuit. The plebiscite has yet to be rescheduled, though the governor has said he hopes the vote will take place in 2018.

OK, so catch me up. What’s going on?

Tensions between North Korea and the United States have been escalating since the North tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July with ranges long enough to potentially hit U.S. targets. Kim Jong Un, the North’s supreme leader, called the tests a “stern warning” to the United States. In response, Congress authorized additional sanctions against North Korea that targeted foreign entities doing business with the rogue state. The U.N. Security Council also passed a resolution Aug. 5 imposing more sanctions on North Korea and targeting its exports. These sanctions are expected to cut about a third of North Korea’s $3 billion in annual export revenue. After news of the U.N. sanctions reached North Korea, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that “the day the United States dares tease our nation with a nuclear weapon and sanctions, the mainland United States will be catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire.”

Then President Trump responded by stating that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States … They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Kim Jong Un soon threatened a strike that would create an “enveloping fire” around the U.S. territory of Guam. Shortly thereafter, North Korea announced that it would complete plans around mid-August to fire four intermediate range ballistic missiles near Guam.

During a scheduled stopover on Guam last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set a measured tone, telling Americans that they can “sleep well at night” and saying that he knew of no strategic acceleration of military action in the wake of the leaders’ verbal exchange.

More comments followed—fueling the situation and apparently seeking to calm it. CIA Director Mike Pompeo expressed confidence that North Korea would continue to develop its missile program. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there was another missile test,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” But he also said that he has “seen no intelligence that would indicate that we’re [on the cusp of nuclear war] today.”

Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed emphasizing that the United States’ strategy is not aimed at ousting Kim Jong Un but, rather, the denuclearization of North Korea. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said that “we’re not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago.”

President Trump also followed up with a tweet: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, reportedly told officials in South Korea that the North’s missiles threaten the world and that the U.S. is prepared to use the “full range” of its military capabilities to defend itself and its allies.

Which brings us to this week: On Monday evening, Kim Jong Un reviewed the promised plans to launch four missiles into waters near Guam and decided he would hold off on execution. North Korean media reported that “if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity, testing the self-restraint of the DPRK, the latter will make an important decisions as it already declared.” Some consider this a sign of de-escalation. At the very least, this pause looks more like a “ball’s in your court” action than another provocation.

What is Guam’s strategic military significance?

About 28 percent of Guam’s surface area is occupied by two military bases: the Naval Base Guam in the south of the island and Andersen Air Force Base in the north. Around 7,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Guam. The Naval Base is home to four nuclear attack submarines, intended for quick deployment and intelligence gathering. Andersen Air Force Base is home to a number of bombers and Navy helicopters. In 2004, the United States began rotating B-1, B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers through Andersen. In 2013, the Army installed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, designed to destroy missiles while they are en route to their targets. A 2014 report from Andersen said that Guam also holds the largest munitions stockpile in the world.

What is the nature of the relationship between Guamanians and the U.S. military?

Guam has a higher rate of enlistment than any U.S. state and four times the national average of casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2007, Guam ranked first in recruiting success for the Army National Guard. As far back as Vietnam, Guam servicemen suffered casualty rates nearly three times the national average. While there is no single explanation for Guam’s high enlistment rates, the island is often quite patriotic. The Atlantic’s Lenika Cruz (also a fellow Guamanian) captures the faith that many have in the military: Kathy Diaz, a local woman who has been reassured by her four sons in the Army; Carl Peterson explaining that “Guamanians are always known for taking war and freedom very seriously”; and, Rep. Bordallo’s communications director, Adam Carbullido, describing the people of Guam as “extraordinary patriotic American citizens” who, even in the face of North Korean threats “understand the role that we play as members of the American family.”

Despite the Guamanians’ patriotism and our years of sacrifice, the relationship between the island and the U.S. military has been riddled with tension.

In 2009, the U.S. military began floating a proposal to relocate 8,000 Marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam. Subsequent discussions have drawn mixed reactions. A 2010 study showed that 53 percent of Guam residents viewed the potential for military buildup to be “generally positive.” But the survey also showed a generational gap in opinions about the military, with much of Guam’s youth viewing the buildup as having a negative impact on Guam’s culture.

There is a groundswell of cultural reclamation and education movements in Guam, sometimes coupled with decolonization and anti-military-buildup sentiments. The opinions touted by activists, on the island and off it, aren’t necessarily representative of Guamanian opinions on the whole, but the questions surrounding the U.S. military presence on the island are painful, complicated and unsettled. As Neil Weare and Rodney Cruz, fellow Guamanians, aptly expressed in their recent New York Times op-ed, “Should the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, B-2 stealth bombers and other military assets in Guam make its residents feel safer? Or is the large military presence why North Korea is singling out Guam in the first place?”

Has North Korea threatened Guam before?


In 2016, North Korea threatened Guam after a B-1 bomber flyover came out of Andersen Air Force Base. North Korea said then that the “DPRK will sweep Guam . . . from the surface of the earth.” Similarly, in 2013, Pyongyang threatened Guam after a B-52 bomber from Andersen Air Force Base came close to the North Korean border. Then North Korea’s statement was equally bellicose: “the KPA strategic rocket force has already been on a-class alert to wipe out the U.S. forces and reduce their bases in Guam and other regions to ashes . . . it will never miss the opportunity to sweep away the Andersen air base in Guam.”

Are you at all worried that, with the increased military presence, that the island will … tip over? Capsize?

As another fellow Guamanian, Michelle Lee, succinctly put it in her recent Washington Post explainer: No.

Shannon Togawa Mercer is a senior associate at WilmerHale. Her practice focuses on complex global data protection, privacy, and cybersecurity matters. Ms. Togawa Mercer has extensive experience counseling clients on cross border data protection and privacy compliance as well as cyber incident response. She has practiced in London and Washington D.C. and previously served as Managing Editor and Senior Editor at Lawfare. Ms. Togawa Mercer also served as National Security and Law associate at the Hoover Institution.

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